Personal judgment and discretionary flaws aside, Newt Gingrich may be the most brillant man to ever serve as Speaker of the House. I once sat in an audience at Maxwell AFB (a lone Major in the back of a room filled with Colonels and flag officers) as Mr. Gingrich expounded on the subject of change in the 21st Century. It was a verbal and intellectual tour-de-force; he spoke for more than two hours (without notes) on topics ranging from nuclear proliferation to global economic trends; throughout the presentation, he demonstrated a grasp of economic, political and technical knowledge that was truly impressive.
However, even great minds get it wrong from time to time, and Newt Gingrich is no exception. The former speaker made some misguided comments in South Dakota yesterday, describing the U.S. occupation of Iraq as a "terrible mistake," and suggesting that the bulk of our troops be withdrawn from that country, leaving behind a "small force," just as we did in post-war Germany and Korea.
Gingrich made the comments during a Q-and-A session that followed his speech at the University of South Dakota. Perhaps he was speaking off the cuff, with little regard for the illogical nature of his remarks. Whatever the reason, Mr. Gingrich's remarks are strangely asinine, and unworthy of a serious observer of the international scene.
Consider his notion that the U.S. should have largely vacated Iraq in the summer of 2003. Without a government. Without a constitution. Without any organized security forces. With a broken economy. Critics contend that today's Iraq is essentially a mess, but the domestic situation would have far worse if the U.S. had simply deposed Saddam, then largely abandoned Iraq--as Gingrich suggested. Under that scenario, the "best case" would have been a re-emergence of the Baathists, the resturn of autocratic rule under a Saddam clone, and a gradual resumption of WMD programs. A worst case would have witnessed a quick devolution into civil war and (eventually) a federated Iraq, with Tehran pulling the strings of the Shiite "republic" that would emerge in the south.
Gingrich's "vision" of an Iraq left for the Iraqis--without the tools to "make it work"--is a recipe for chaos and violence on a scale that is unimaginable. Colin Powell was right; when we invaded Iraq and ejected Saddam, we assumed an obligation to get the country back on its feet--a process that is difficult, somewhat bloody, and altogether necessary. We certainly didn't abandon Germany and Japan after WWII; successive administrations showed great patience while those nations developed democratic institutions and a modern economy. Iraq has the ability to complete a similar transition, but that process will be measured in years, not months. It is not a task for the faint of heart, a group that Mr. Gingrich has apparently joined.
Equally laughable is Gingrich's plan to leave a "small force" behind. I'm not sure what his definition of "small" is, but the U.S. forces that still guard Germany, Japan and South Korea and not inconsequential. For example, the defense of the Korean peninsula still requires two wings of Air Force fighters and an entire an Army division--more than 30,000 personnel--with ready support from a Marine division in Okinawa and a Japan-based carrier battle group. As recently as the early 1990s, there was still an Army Corps in Germany (more than 60,000 troops), plus four Air Force wings and a huge support infrastructure. Even today--more than a decade after the end of the Cold War--there are still more than 30,000 U.S. troops in Germany, a sizeable force by any definition. Is Gingrich willing to make the same commitment for Iraq, to protect another country making the transition from totalitarianism to democracy?
Reading between the lines, it seems clear that Gingrich's remarks were aimed at the 2008 presidential race. Having left the House long before the invasion of Iraq, Gingrich can position himself as a candidate who would have waged a different war--something John Kerry tried to articulate as "fighting smarter." The American electorate didn't buy that argument in 2004, but Gingrich believes it could be a winner in 2008, attracting support from disgruntled neo-cons (call them the Fukuyama wing of the GOP) and Democrats to the right of Joe Lieberman.
As a potential basis for our policy in Iraq, Gingrich's ideas are clearly a non-starter, and I don't think they'll work as political strategy, either. Everyone's entitled to bad ideas, and Newt outlined a couple of real clunkers in his remarks in South Dakota.