Jacob Heilbrunn

Newt Gingrich (Sort Of) Abandons Neoconservatism

It may not amount to a political earthquake, but it is a sign of the tremors shaking up the GOP. Newt Gingrich is having a change of heart. The longtime champion of American intervention abroad says he's rethinking matters. His foreign policy views are continuing to evolve away from neoconservatism and towards the more libertarian wing of the party—to the point that he opposes American intervention in Syria.

Gingrich told the Washington Times, "I am a neoconservative. But at some point, even if you are a neoconservative, you need to take a deep breath to ask if our strategies in the Middle East have succeeded." He went on to utter an even more heretical thought, at least in neocon circles. "It may be that our capacity to export democracy," Gingrich said, "is a lot more limited than we thought."

At this late date, these statements are unexceptional, even banal. The public long ago wrote off these wars. It is a small coterie of defense intellectuals, pundits, and politicians in the GOP who have clung to the notion that if there was a flaw in the Bush administration's approach to the Middle East, it was only in the execution, not the theory. One reason Gingrich's musings are exciting interest is, of course, because of the GOP's longstanding refusal to confront the woeful outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The party line has been to blame President Obama for not prosecuting those conflicts more aggressively, for squandering the victories that were within sight, for ignoring the triumphant legacy that George W. Bush had left behind for his successor.

Another reason is that Gingrich has explicitly indicated that the ideas of Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul deserve a hearing. "I think it would be healthy to go back and wargame what alternative strategies would have been better, and I like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul because they are talking about this," said Gingrich.

What lies behind Gingrich's change of heart? For one thing, he's making it clear that he remains a foe of the GOP establishment, and that he sees New Jersey governor Chris Christie's assault on Rand Paul as a sign of how "hysterical" it is becoming. Gingrich has always been someone who stands on the ramparts, a counterrevolutionary. In the context of today's GOP, in which neocon orthodoxy has long held sway, the only way to distinguish yourself is by challenging the idea that America must intervene abroad, wherever and whenever it can.

But there may be more to it than that. It is also the case that Gingrich has long had an astute sense for the pulse of the GOP. He may well believe—and his belief may be justified—that the party is at a turning point when it comes to examining its stands on foreign policy. The GOP has yet to undertake a real reckoning with the policies of the George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. It's reflexive stance has been to assail Obama for not adhering to them even more closely. But as Obama's second term continues, Republican legislators may feel increasingly liberated from the albatross of the Bush-Cheney years to reassess their legacy. Is it really the case that Obama has been soft on terror? Or has he, in fact, clung too closely to the doctrines of Bush and Cheney when it comes to civil liberties and monitoring Americans for terrorist activity? Are the very antiterror measures touted by Bush and Cheney, and continued by Obama, undermining the liberties and freedoms they purport to protect?

Gingrich's remarks are a further sign that the old consensus in the GOP is fraying. Whether a sustained reassessment of foreign policy will occur or whether the GOP will simply devolve into recriminations is an open question. But it is clear that none of the fulgurations of Christie and others will be able to avert a clash over foreign affairs. Quite the contrary. Their chest-thumping will only accelerate it.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.