Why is Newt Gingrich engaging in an excursus into the history of the Middle East? The other day this famous historian of the Congo announced that he had made a major new discovery about the Middle East. His pearl of wisdom: the Palestinians are an "invented people."
Oh, yeah? The proper response to Speaker Gingrich, who is purporting to speak the truth, and only the truth, about the Palestinians, is this: who isn't?
Gingrich needs fresh information. The idea of "imagined communities," as a variety of scholars have shown, is a common theme in the history of most nations. Nations have constantly invented themselves. Each has its own set of founding myths. In fact, it's something of a left-wing notion to emphasize that nations are artificial constructs.
What does Speaker Gingrich think the Zionist movement did other than whip up a new community by invoking old dreams of a Jewish nation? Theodor Herzl sketched out a Zionist utopia in, among other places, his novel Old New Land. It was a wildly idealistic vision of a new Jewish state in which Jews and Arabs worked side by side peacefully so as to create a technocratic utopia. The Zionists drew on Herzl's vision to set out to construct a nation, complete with flags, national anthem and so on.
What renders Gingrich's remarks so opprobrious is that they were a deliberate provocation. They weren't about whether the Palestinians are an invented community or not. They were intended to cast doubt on their claim to any territory at all in the Middle East—Gingrich implied that they should have settled in the various Arab nations instead of pleading their case to the world community, these nettlesome folk—and to demonstrate, above all, that he, Gingrich, has more cojones than anyone else in the GOP field when it comes to siding with Israel. That he is further tarnishing America's reputation in the Middle East and elsewhere is irrelevant to him. The fact is that historical debates about who was there first are irrelevant, tedious, interminable. Israel exists. The Palestinians aren't going away. Gingrich knows this. Which is why his campaign is announcing that he does believe in a two-state solution.
Mitt Romney seized upon Gingrich's remarks as further evidence of his unreadiness to serve as president. As Romney rightly pointed out in the Sunday debate, Gingrich is hardly doing Israel any favors by creating more "tumult" in the region, as though it weren't enough of a powder keg already. But Gingrich's tawdry comments were the reductio ad absurdum of a GOP field that, until now, has appeared to know no limits in its desire to abase itself before Jewish voters in a desperate attempt to siphon off votes from Barack Obama in the 2012 election.
As is his wont, Gingrich praised himself for his courage. According to Gingrich,
I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth, just as was Ronald Reagan who went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire and who overruled his entire State Department in order to say, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Reagan believed the power of truth restated the world and reframed the world. I am a Reaganite, I'm proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the truth, even if it's at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid.
Gingrich flatters himself. His remarks are a monument to his own vanity. No doubt it is good to have a president with the courage to tell the truth. But Reagan was hardly risking nuclear war when he yelled at Mikhail Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate. He was, incidentally, challenging Mikhail Gorbachev to show that he believed in peace by tearing down the Berlin Wall—he wasn't denouncing him. Reagan was always polite. Firm but polite. Reagan also, let it be known, told Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to quit bombing Lebanon in 1983. To judge by Gingrich's behavior, he would tell Israel to up the firepower. Reagan also, over intense Israeli objections, sold AWACS to Saudi Arabia in 1981. He was a friend of Israel's, not a fawning pushover.
Gingrich can call himself a Reaganite all he wants, but it's false branding. Reagan was cautious, prudent and firm. Gingrich is anything but.