The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

On Security Dilemmas and The Absurdity of Newt Gingrich

February 1, 2012

When he isn’t comparing himself to Ronald Reagan (whose withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, arms control negotiations with Gorbachev, nuclear abolitionist visions and moderation on immigration, and general sunny persona suggest they aren’t politically identical), Newt Gingrich says things like this:

I would say that the most dangerous thing — which, by the way, Barack Obama just did — the Iranians are practicing closing the Strait of Hormuz, actively taunting us, so he cancels a military exercise with the Israelis so as not to be provocative?

“Dictatorships respond to strength, they don’t respond to weakness,” Gingrich continued, “and I think there’s very grave danger that the Iranians think this president is so weak that they could close the Strait of Hormuz and not suffer substantial consequences.

Its already pointed out that his claim about the cancelled exercise is factually false.

More deeply, its simply untrue to claim that dictatorships (or any regime type, actually) only respond to ‘strength’, which is Gingrich’s shorthand for bellicose escalation.

It shouldn’t take a degree in political science (or indeed, in Gingrich’s case, a Phd in History), to ponder why this might be ever so slightly misleading. For a start, talk of ‘being strong’ because its the only way to change your enemy’s behaviour is exactly how Iran’s Supreme Leader is reported to talk about America. How would a President Gingrich react to equivalent Iranian posturing?

Surprisingly enough, history suggests that regimes which are highly motivated to survive might respond badly to threats, sabre rattling, and confrontation.

A really important case of this happened between 1937-1941, which despite the obsession with that era amongst Gingrich and his fans, is often neglected. President Franklin Roosevelt imposed economic sanctions on Imperial Japan (including oil, tin and rubber) which would virtually destroy its ability to operate. He did so to pressure Japan to abandon its brutal expansionism in China. He was confident that the presence of the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii would act as a deterrent against retaliation.

Seeking to avoid a war in the Pacific, Roosevelt’s twin approach of coercion and deterrence had perverse results. Given the choice between abandoning its imperial ambitions in continental Asia, and challenging the US directly, Japan’s rulers chose Door Number 2.This unleashed a Pacific war of unimaginable suffering that neither country actually wanted.

Had Gingrich been advising President John Kennedy in 1962, would he, like the Joint Chiefs, have been muttering about Munich and warning the President to look strong by escalating against an opponent, we now know, armed with nuclear-tipped ground-to-ground missiles and authorised to use them?

Kennedy, fortunately, was mindful of other Western strategic history, when escalation resulted not in bloodless climbdowns but in the war of 1914-1918, with the horrors it bequethed to the twentieth century.

Most important of all, Gingrich falls prey to the false binaries of what passes for foreign policy ‘debate’ amongst those who call themselves Reaganites (and who conveniently forget how disappointed they were by the actual Reagan in the mid-1980’s). He characterises strategic choices as a matter of strength versus weakness.

For Gingrich, there is no middle ground of prudence and restraint. Reagan sometimes escalated, and sometimes backed off. We can debate how well or badly he did so, and whether it was part of a conscious design or an erratic indecision. But there was a sense that diplomatic behaviour, and the mix of deterrence and talks, could be calibrated and measured.

Not so with Newt, who simply won’t recognise that his own talk of threats, sanctions, regime change and military strikes might make Tehran want a deterrent (or even just a latent capability) even more, thereby making Newt a potential co-creator of the very monster that he warns against.

I yearn for his political implosion, and return to the outer darkness of the political fringe.   

Cross-posted at The Offshore Balancer

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Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.