The Dangerously Unpredictable Foreign Policy of Newt Gingrich

Radical ideas, contradictory positions, and a lack of ideology would make it harder for other state to anticipate American behavior and could add unneeded instability to the world.

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Gingrich scolds CNN moderator John King at the beginning of a GOP debate in Charleston / Reuters

On March 7, Fox News's Greta Van Susteren asked Newt Gingrich what he, as president, would do in response to the growing crisis in Libya. Muammar Qaddafi had pledged to exterminate dissidents in the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi "like rats," but the world had so far failed to respond to the growing calls for an outside intervention. "Exercise a no-fly-zone this evening, communicate to the Libyan military that Qaddafi was gone and that the sooner they switch sides, the more likely they were to survive, provided help to the rebels to replace him," Gingrich answered. "The United States doesn't need anybody's permission."

Then, on March 23, a few days after President Obama had sought and won a UN-backed no-fly-zone over Libya, Gingrich declared, "I would not have intervened. I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Qaddafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces."

On the surface, it looked like the same routine hypocrisy practiced by just about every political campaign: stake out the opposite position as your opponent's, draw a contrast, and attack. But this reversal was especially flagrant, and amazingly unselfconscious, in a way that is particular to Newt Gingrich's approach to foreign policy during the campaign. His conception of the world, as he reveals it time and again in episodes like this one, seems to have little ideological underpinning beyond a love of his own cleverness and a compulsive need to look smarter than the other guy. With his candidacy looking newly viable in South Carolina and perhaps beyond, it's worth considering what this would mean for the world should he become president.

Gingrich is sometimes described as a policy nihilist. That doesn't appear any more or less true when it comes to his foreign policy, but it could be a great deal more dangerous. The U.S. has a relationship of one form or another with almost every nation on Earth. All of those relationships are contingent on trust, if not in the U.S. as an ally (many aren't), then at least in that they know what the U.S. will do. American predictability is one of the most important ways we secure our role on the world stage. Global politics is impossibly complicated, with dozens of states and actors intertwined in every problem and trying to plan ten steps ahead. One of the reasons we don't devolve into chaos and war every other week is that everyone can anticipate everyone else's behavior, and this is especially important for American dominance. America's steady hand is not just a stabilizer but a way to make sure that everyone continues to assume American leadership. This doesn't get talked about much because everyone takes it for granted. But would it last under a President Gingrich?

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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