Newt Gingrich on Libya policy: Firing in every direction

Eugene Robinson
Opinion writer March 28, 2011

If you don’t like Newt Gingrich’s carefully considered and passionately argued position on the U.S. intervention in Libya, just wait. Recent history suggests that within days he’ll be saying the opposite of whatever he’s saying now.

My best guess is that for the moment, at least, Gingrich kind of supports President Obama’s decision to use military force against Libyan despot Moammar Gaddafi, or at least that he hopes it succeeds. But it’s hard to be certain. On Libya, the former House speaker has shown the ability to be both pro and con with equal moral certainty and intellectual arrogance.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture, contributes to the PostPartisan blog, and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section. View Archive

Why does it matter if a man known for rhetorical bomb-throwing happens to lob a few contradictory grenades? Because when Gingrich said on “Fox News Sunday” that he hopes to announce his candidacy for president within a month, nobody laughed. There’s no clear front-runner for the Republican nomination, and one has to assume that anything can happen.

In that same interview, Gingrich completed the final full twist in a “flip-flop-flip” maneuver that would have merited perfect “10s” in an Olympic diving competition — demonstrating why he should never, ever be allowed anywhere near the Oval Office.

Gingrich launched himself from the springboard on March 7, when Fox News host Greta Van Susteren asked what he would do about Gaddafi’s use of heavy weapons and deadly force against peaceful demonstrators.

“Exercise a no-fly zone this evening,” he replied. “All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening.”

His first somersault came on March 23, days after the U.N.-authorized military intervention had begun. You’d think he might applaud the operation — enforcement of a no-fly zone and attacks on Gaddafi’s armored columns, all in an attempt to protect civilians from an impending massacre — since that was what he had suggested. But you’d be wrong.

“I would not have intervened,” he told NBC’s Matt Lauer. “I would not have used American and European forces, bombing Arabs and that country.” The next day, he elaborated “We are not in a position to go around the world every time there’s a local problem and intervene,” he told Fox.

But then on Saturday, at an appearance in Iowa, he spun to what looked suspiciously like his original position, arguing that the United States and its allies should “defeat Gaddafi as rapidly as possible.”

Gingrich seems to be having a particularly heated argument with himself over the whole “air power” thing. On March 7, pro-intervention Newt declared: “We don’t have to send troops. All we have to do is suppress [Gaddafi’s] air force, which we could do in minutes.” On March 24, anti-intervention Newt scoffed to Fox: “If they’re serious about protecting civilians, you can’t do that from the air. . . . This is a fundamental mistake, and I think is a typical politician’s overreliance on air power.” On March 26, defeat-Gaddafi-rapidly Newt said that vanquishing the dictator should involve “using all of Western air power as decisively as possible.”

In a rare understatement, Gingrich acknowledged Saturday that “obviously there were contradictions” in his various statements. Typically, however, he defended them all.

The fact that he had appeared to take so many sides of the issue, he claimed, was somehow Obama’s fault. Just like not intervening was Obama’s fault, intervening was Obama’s fault, and whatever the allies are doing with air power is Obama’s fault.

Obama moved painstakingly toward committing U.S. forces to the Libya intervention, first securing a U.N. mandate, some measure of support from Arab nations and a guarantee of meaningful involvement by our European allies. He thought about the precedent this kind of humanitarian military action might set. He tried to assess how the other beleaguered autocrats in the region might react to U.S. action or inaction.

Leave aside, for the moment, whether Obama made the right call. At least he tried. Gingrich, by contrast, reflexively shoots from the lip. On any conceivable subject, he’s always ready to tell you more than he knows. He is certain that his view is 100 percent right — until he decides it’s 100 percent wrong.

I realize his criticism of Obama from all sides of the Libya question is fundamentally a political tactic — go on the attack, make a lot of noise, attract some attention. But his cavalier recklessness on a matter of war and peace should send chills up the spine of anyone who sees the words “Newt Gingrich” and “presidential candidate” in the same sentence. Heaven help us.

Eugene Robinson will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions or comments before or during the discussion.

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