- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wants a fundamental realignment in U.S. national security structures to strengthen the country’s ability to adapt to threats. Gingrich, a senior fellow for public policy research at the American Enterprise Institute, says the White House and Congress must first overcome “petty partisan politics” and forge a united front to tackle the challenges facing the country. He also hinted that the current situation could lead him to enter the presidential race later this year.
Did the presidential campaign get under way too quickly, you think, this year?
It’s an absurdity. You live in an age of instant, electronic communication. And you have people running for an entire year so they can run for an entire year so they can get a job in January 2009. If the American people want an absurdity, then frankly they should pick one of the current candidates, because these folks have been talked by their consultants into what I think is an inherently stupid model. On the other hand, if the American people are still looking around in October and November, I’ll consider running.
You’re polling 7 percent in some cases for a Republican presidential candidacy. Any comments on a Gingrich candidacy?
Well, we have a project called American Solutions, which will hold a nationwide workshop online on September 27, the anniversary of the Contract with America. It will lay out how to transform government in very dramatic ways. We will repeat it on September 29, which is a Saturday, and then I’ll start looking. But I’m not going to think anything about a presidential campaign until we finish developing a generation of solutions, and we lay out the concept of a solutions-day approach. There are 511,000 elected officials in the United States. So if you truly want to transform the country, you have seventeen thousand school boards, 3,300 counties, 7,200 state legislators, fifty governors, sixty thousand cities and towns. You have to have a much deeper, more profound movement than just a presidential campaign.
Today the Senate will take up where the House left off Wednesday on the Iraq bill. It will probably get to the president on Tuesday. Is this exercise ultimately dangerous or maybe even healthy in terms of vetting the Iraq debate?
Let’s assume the president vetoes it the minute it arrives and returns it. If the Congress then goes through a ritual within a day or two of trying to override, which they clearly in the House have no hope of, and then send up a clean bill with benchmarks as suggestions rather than requirements and get it signed, then I would say it’s part of the normal process of a democracy and not illegitimate. If, on the other hand, this leads to another sixty or ninety days of turmoil, I think it is very destructive for the country and increases the problems of the American military substantially.
There seems to have been some backlash among Democrats to what Senate Majority Leader Reid has said about the war being lost. Do you see perhaps a new strategy emerging from the Democrats on how to wind down in Iraq?
Senator Reid, in suggesting that the calculus for the war was whether or not they would gain Democratic Senate seats, crossed a line which for most Americans is going to be extraordinarily unacceptable if they think about it. Is he suggesting that if General [David] Petraeus [U.S. commander in Iraq] declared victory next Tuesday that he would be sad because that might mean they wouldn’t win seats?
There’s a continuing tendency on the part of the left wing of the Democratic Party to say things that are at clear variance with the American tradition of trying to find a way to have a unified national foreign policy.
It puts Senator Reid in a very difficult box, but if you go back, this is not anything new. A year ago you had the Senate Democratic whip saying, in effect, that the United States was comparable to Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. There’s a continuing tendency on the part of the left wing of the Democratic Party—that was [Senator] Dick Durbin [(D-IL)]—to say things that are at clear variance with the American tradition of trying to find a way to have a unified national foreign policy.
Was there an opportunity missed after the midterm elections and the release of the Iraq Study Group report for the president and Democratic leaders to get together and present a united front on an Iraq strategy?
The president would have been better served to have recognized the American people had spoken and to have tried very hard to forge a common bond. It would have been difficult. But I look back on the long negotiations we had with the Clinton administration in 1995 and 1996 on budget matters and, you know, sometimes when you spend twenty five or thirty days in a room with each other, you do change, you do learn things. The administration in a sense wanted to ignore the results of the election, and that’s very hard to sustain because the elections are about the American people. They’re not about the Democrats and Republicans.
On the longer war on terror, is there also a sense of a dialogue not happening in terms of what is really at stake here?
We have a real challenge because we are mired down now in very petty partisan politics in a very nasty and negative way. Our news media is sort of cheerfully following the system down. So it gets harder and harder to have these serious discussions about long-term institutional requirements. The president might be well served to invite all of the Democratic presidential candidates to come to the White House and to sit and talk seriously about whether there is a way to build some bipartisan commissions that they would also respect that would enable the country to have a dialogue that transcended the partisan bickering.
Could you outline the top three ways the country should be mobilizing for the war on terror at this point?
The Department of Homeland Security should be having two nuclear and one biological exercise a year that are real, that are full scale, and that give people a sense of what the threat of modern technology is when used by terrorists or by dictatorships.
If the American people want an absurdity, then frankly they should pick one of the current candidates. … On the other hand, if the American people are still looking around in October and November, I’ll consider running.
We need to go to an integrated system of national security and replace the interagency [system], which does not work, with a much more sophisticated integrated system that uses metrics and that has accountability and transparency and that gets all of the various elements of national security working together in an effective way. We have to reconceptualize the State Department and reinvest in it so it has enough information technology, and so the Foreign Service is large enough that people can afford to take time to go get educated or to be on loan, or seconded, to other agencies. Those kinds of changes give you some sense of the scale of where we have to go.
Two other big issues before Congress this session are trade and immigration. How do you see their role in the U.S. place in the world?
In the case of trade, we have to recognize two things. First, the American consumer has been the biggest winner worldwide in a world market. We’ve had [more] choices of goods at lower cost with greater convenience than any human beings in history. Second, if we’re going to compete with China and India, we have to fundamentally transform litigation, regulation, taxation, education, health, and energy. If we don’t go through that transformation, we will not be competitive. We have to look at the challenges Europe has faced, where they’ve had a very difficult time getting that kind of structural reform, and decide whether we’re prepared to fall behind and allow over the next generation China and India to pass us, or whether we are determined to remain the most competitive, most productive, wealthiest, and safest country in the world. In which case, we have a lot of work to do here at home in order to be competitive in a world market.
Immigration-wise, these "touchback proposals," are they holding perhaps the key to a compromise?
You can find a formula that says one, control the border for national security reasons. Two, have a worker identity card that is sophisticated, run by MasterCard or American Express or Visa, that has a biometric and that actually works. Three, have a very intense effort to stop any American employer from breaking the law by raising the penalties, raising the inspection rate, cross- checking various data. Four, insisting that American citizenship be a function of passing a test in American history in English, and that to become an American citizen you give up voting and serving in office in any other country, so you truly have decided to be here. In that context, everyone who’s currently here, rather than have them pay two thousand dollars to the government [as a penalty], I’d rather have them take the same two thousand dollars, go home, get the new worker card and enter the United States legally. I would also change the visa rules to ensure that anybody who had a high level of education or a substantial amount of capital or a clear record of entrepreneurship could enter the United States to work. Because those folks enrich us and create jobs here, and make us more competitive.