The Radical Naïveté of Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich is trying to reinvent, or rehabilitate, himself. And he’s doing it by trying to whip up reflexive anger across his party’s base. Without citing one single point of Pres. Obama’s policy or one single piece of historical evidence, he has classed Obama’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons as “a dangerous fantasy”. He is situating himself firmly in the camp of make-believe “values conservatives” whose world view is actually an adolescent reading of Machiavelli (and a fantasy already proven to be dangerous).

Values, if those who camp along this stretch of the ideological spectrum have any allegiance to them, must always come after and be subsumed by a regime of dark and cynical manipulations. To what end? To prove that one is dark and cynical enough to be feared. This is the adolescent part of their understanding of Machiavelli — whose philosophy we will not treat in detail here. They claim to know how to be better than the brutes, thugs and villains, by imitating them.

As The Economist reported in its 11 April 2009 edition:

On April 5th in Prague, Mr Obama reiterated a campaign promise to hold talks with Russia to reduce both American and Russian nuclear stockpiles, to push for a global nuclear test ban and to set up an international nuclear fuel bank to help with peaceful nuclear-energy programmes. The same day, North Korea, which has already made at least one illegal nuclear bomb, fired a test missile over Japan. Though the missile crashed into the sea, many Republicans think it illuminated Mr Obama’s naiveté.

Of course they do. And Newt is one of them. He has to be shocked and appalled at the irresponsible hopefulness of anyone who would dare to deliberately fashion a plan aimed at achieving the optimum outcome, because he is operating on the assumption that anything worth doing can be undone by the brute force of those with ill will.

This is the real root of this aspirational pseudo-realism, the false claim that one can know future outcomes simply by betting on the worst actors. This sort of quasi-cynic/quasi-conservative would-be ideologue is addicted to political attitudes of that kind. They indulge, almost as part of their platform, the desire to witness the naïveté of their rivals, which they believe they can then use to attack those rivals as weak. This passion stands in for solid policy formulations.

So their protests must be immediate, shrill and filled with disdain and either/or absolutism. Absolutism equals strength, vision equals weakness, in this sad outlook. But let’s be serious about the meaning of strength and the meaning of weakness. Policies based on a dogmatic commitment to paranoia are capitulation to the worst of the worst. They demonstrate weakness in terms of intellectual creativity, military cunning and the application of global influence.

To put it another way, it is not a sign of higher intelligence to think Saddam Hussein is a thug, so let’s be thugs; Kim Jong-il lives ‘on the dark side’, so we have to ‘go to the dark side’; al-Qaeda wants to annihilate us, therefore they are powerful enough to annihilate us. Cogent thought and responsible action can occur, even in the emotional area of confronting hostile opponents; to go without it is not a sign of strength, but of weakness.

The strong are able to treat failed provocations as what they are —desperate attempts to puff up one’s ego, or one’s public image—, and understanding them as such, do serious things to deal with serious problems. That Gingrich is aligning himself with the Cheney model of foreign policy, where talks-equals-weakness follow-my-orders diplomacy stands in for responsible efforts to achieve positive outcomes, is a sign he seeks to use the brutality and villainy of rogue states as a political weapon against his own fellow Americans in the political sphere.

Not only is the “naïveté” attack on Obama a sign of moral impotence and intellectual weakness, it is a sign of a will to attack one’s own nation and its values, in favor of elevating the game-plan and the methods of the world’s worst. Gingrich appears to be adopting that philosophy where the danger “out there” trumps all considerations about better values or the possibility of “defending democracy” by standing by it. It is the “axis-of-evil” mentality, the conjuring of fictional dark alliances against freedom, the adolescent posturing of all-gunboat-diplomacy all-the-time foreign policy, that empowers and elevates Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the Taliban, and others whose own colossal failures and detachment from reality already demonstrate their long-term inviability.

The cynicism of these shrill voices is aspirational. They want to see bad outcomes to demonstrate the need for less optimal and less well-thought practical solutions, because they seek to capitalize politically on such failures. The aspirational cynicism of adolescent thinkers like Newt Gingrich is itself a dangerous naïveté, because it assumes: 1) there is no adverse consequence to siding with the logic or the m.o. of the enemy and playing politics with serious efforts at disarmament, and 2) that even in expressing such colossal weakness as to hurl a rocket into the sea and lie about it, somehow the less powerful is actually the more.

The aspirational cynicism of Gingrich, Cheney, Frum and others—diverse as some of their policy positions may be on specifics—is rooted in an inability to think seriously about how you out-smart the logic of primitive thuggery. It is naïve and dangerous in the extreme, because it would cast aside all the best and most effective qualities of American democracy, in service of a perverse fealty to the many ineptitudes of isolated rogue states.

North Korea has given the world the clearest evidence of its weakness, and made clear the power inherent in offering talks. Wayward enough to threaten far more powerful states, lost and incapable enough to drop an orbit-bound rocket into the sea, with the whole world watching, when it could have gained diplomatically by not launching, the hermit regime has shown its teeth, half of them missing and the others dulled by ideological grinding.

The president of the United States knows what was happening and understands all of this, and he—unlike his critics—has the personal fortitude and the confidence in American power to press for a global regime of disarmament. Smart enough to note that any reasonable timetable for global denuclearization might be beyond his old age, he knows that credibility is, well, more credible than unsubstantiated threats and puerile tug-of-war mind games with unstable regimes.

So, the Gingrich plan for governing appears to be to complain, to imitate the enemy, take weakness as strength and strength as weakness, undermine one’s own nation’s democratic ideals and practical security goals, and dance around the realities of the world like a peacock who thinks his tail feathers are more relevant than whether or not his grandchildren die in a mushroom cloud his own policies helped to generate.

Obama’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons is not “dangerous” as Gingrich suggests, because he has not proposed that the US nuclear deterrent be eliminated while any rival nuclear power remains. It is part of a pragmatic approach to solving horrible problems: get started, do good work, serve the interests of democracy, get everyone else into a committed, transparent and effective process, and try to make the world work without forcing or risking mass death.

That is a plan. It involves pushing for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a new round of strategic arms reduction with the Russian Federation, serious action—secret, or not so secret—to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal against Taliban takeover, and a globally backed, sharp-toothed regime capable of preventing nuclear proliferation via espionage or the black market. Should we seriously bother to compare this with the bold idea that is let’s not talk to them?

Not talking to a rogue regime about curbing its rogue behavior is capitulation. It is the best way to permit acquisition of the world’s worst weapons, granting them as much time as they need to continue working not only to acquire the weapons, but to hide the facilities and/or fashion adequate defenses against airstrikes. So, while Barack Obama seeks to rally world leaders to a new era of nuclear disarmament, Gingrich adopts the failed “hard power” dogma of the American Enterprise Institute’s favorites, like Dick Cheney and David Frum. They would have us do nothing, sit back and watch while the risk of catastrophic mass death advances and escalates, as it has since the year 2000.

What we have to consider most seriously is, given this demonstrated will to take zero serious measures to prevent proliferation—we can’t credit Cheney or Gingrich for the Bush-era 6-party talks with North Korea or Qadhafi’s voluntary negotiated disarming—, along with the willingness to use extreme force to face phantom menaces, whether we want someone of the Cheney mentality to have any proximity to nuclear weapons or to WMD policy, whether he wears American, Iranian, Pakistani or Korean dress.

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Originally published 8 May 2009, at

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