Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, all but counted out last summer as a 2012 presidential candidate, has come back from the political dead to pull ahead of Mitt Romney in the polls.
Gingrich has been focusing his attacks on President Barack Obama, particularly his record on foreign policy, and specifically the Middle East.
In a June 12 speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Gingrich said he would bring to foreign policy the “moral clarity” that the Obama administration has lacked, replacing what he deemed constant pressure on Israel with a policy that would “tell the truth about terrorism.”
The speech reflected the fact that one of Gingrich’s most stubborn redoubts of support has been among Jewish conservatives, many of whom still appreciate the checks he put on the Oslo peace process in the mid-1990s when he was speaker. Chief among them was a law that recognized Jerusalem as the capital. Gingrich has said his first act as president would be to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Some major Republican Jewish donors committed to other candidates only after it seemed Gingrich was not in the running. But he is no longer being counted out. According to polls, he leads Romney in early caucus and primary states such as Florida, Iowa and South Carolina, as well as nationally among Republicans.
Gingrich’s surge has resulted in a new focus on his past statements and actions. A veteran of decades in public life, he has a long record that his opponents are now trawling through for ammunition.
His foreign policy views have not been immune from such examinations. While Gingrich says that as president he would bring moral clarity to American foreign policy, critics say he often sends mixed signals on the Middle East.
Jennifer Rubin, a conservative Washington Post columnist who backs Romney, dedicated a recent blog post to picking through what she depicted as Gingrich’s flip-flopping on the Iraq War. Rubin quoted reports showing Gingrich, as a member of the Defense Policy Board, helping to plan the war in 2002, and then pronouncing Iraq a no-win proposition in December 2003, when support for the war was still high.
Rubin said this, as well as Gingrich’s equivocation in 2006 on the American military surge that eventually drew Iraq back from chaos, was his “worst betrayal” of Republicans and demonstrated his willingness to place a premium “on political expediency over national security.”
More recently, Gingrich has faced criticism over apparent inconsistencies on Libya. On March 7 he accused Obama of waffling, saying that as president he would immediately and unilaterally impose a no-fly zone. When Obama did just that later in the month, Gingrich said intervention was a mistake.
Commentators attribute Gingrich’s surge to his strong performance in debates. The former history professor and best-selling author appears to command a wealth of knowledge on a wide range of topics.
Some Jewish conservatives, however, are skeptical of Gingrich’s intellectualism and where it has led him.
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer slammed Gingrich for a 2008 television advertisement that he made alongside then–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling for action against climate change — an ad for which Gingrich has since expressed regret.
Gingrich at times also appears tone deaf to certain pro-Israel sensibilities. Asked during a Nov. 22 GOP debate whether he would come to Israel’s defense if it should attack Iran, he said, “If my choice was to collaborate with the Israelis on a conventional campaign or force them to use their nuclear weapons, it will be an extraordinarily dangerous world if, out of a sense of being abandoned, they went nuclear and used multiple nuclear weapons in Iran. That would be a future none of us would want to live through.”
Israel’s oft-stated policy is that it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, under any circumstance. Moreover, Israel has cultivated a posture of ambiguity on whether it possesses such weapons.
Gingrich’s campaign rolled out its foreign policy team earlier this month, as detailed in an article by Foreign Policy magazine’s Josh Rogin. The team appears to be stacked heavily with pro-Israel hawks, including David Wurmser, a former top adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, and James Woolsey, a former CIA director.
Heading the team is Herman Pirchner, who leads the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington think tank that includes Gingrich on its board of advisers. The think tank’s vice president, Ilan Berman, also is on the Gingrich team, Rogin reported.
Some Jewish conservatives had praise for the team. “They leave a strong paper trail,” said Jim Colbert, policy director at the hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.