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?

As with Libya, Gingrich seems to be awash in competing ideas -- his favorite word -- but has little in the way of core beliefs to guide them, or little compunction about jumping from one contradictory declaration to the next. This might make some fun for bloggers and opposition researchers in pointing out Gingrich's contradictions and inconsistencies. But imagine what it would be like for a head of state or senior government official watching Washington from Beijing or Moscow or Jerusalem or Tehran, and having no idea how President Gingrich is going to behave.

Gingrich's approach to problems of any kind seems, as Conor Friedersdorf put it, to start with "fundamentally transforming" the issue or policy or agency at hand. He wants to gut the State Department, shut down Homeland Security to be replaced with a new agency, and bring "profound change" to the Agency for International Development, the military, the war on terror, and diplomacy. His love of dramatic, bold, sweeping policy changes -- apparently made for the sake of being bold and dramatic and sweeping -- makes for great press conferences, but they would create uncertainty about how these newly "transformed" institutions and policies are going to operate.

If you're a Taliban leader thinking about working toward a negotiated peace with the U.S., you know that Gingrich's "one war" dictate would change things, but there's little way to tell how or what that will mean for peace talks. If you're Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei considering finally jumping for a nuclear bomb, do you plan around Gingrich's assertion that U.S. military action would be unlikely to stop you, his insistence that the U.S. should respond coolly because your regime will fall anyway, or his warning that he would start a war to prevent you from going nuclear? If it's a new problem around which Gingrich has not yet had a chance to collect contradictory soundbites -- say, China is thinking about getting more aggressive along naval trade routes or India is weighing a risky new move into Kashmir -- then Gingrich's non-ideology would give world leaders even less information about how the U.S. might respond.

Uncertain states and actors worried about U.S. predictability are going to be less eager to make long-term plans or deals that include the U.S. or even just assume how the U.S. might respond. Because America is at least a little bit involved in nearly everything that happens in the international arena -- South China Sea naval disputes, India-Pakistan nuclear brinksmanship, Israel-Iran saber-rattling, European debt deals, you name it -- Gingrich's unpredictability is going to add a degree of instability to all of it.

"I will tell the truth," Gingrich said of his foreign policy during at a debate in Iowa, "even if it causes some confusion sometimes with the timid." The question is whether he understands just how dangerous that confusion can be.