What Was Newt Thinking?

by Patrick J. Buchanan – April 30, 2003

Last week’s pre-emptive strike by ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich on the State Department and Colin Powell may appear purest madness. But there is method in Newt’s madness.

For in his attack on State, Newt – front man for the neoconservatives – fired a shot across the bow of the West Wing, i.e., you have blundered in backing off the threats against Syria, but do not believe you can pressure Israel, with impunity, into making concessions to the Palestinians.

Consider the site Newt chose to launch his attack.

The American Enterprise Institute, the creation of Lebanese-American William Baroody Sr., was begun as a think tank with ties to Taft-Goldwater Republicans. In the 1990s, it was captured by neocons and converted into their principal nesting ground inside the Beltway. It is now Centcom for the War Party.

Even before Bush took his oath, AEI issued an astonishing paper urging us to ally with Israel and “strike fatally” at Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Teheran and Gaza, to “establish the recognition that fighting either the United States or Israel is suicidal.”

“Crises can be opportunities,” wrote AEI’s David Wurmser. He urged us to be on the lookout for an opportunity to execute the joint U.S.-Israeli strikes. Opportunity knocked on 9-11.

Consider the issues on which Newt attacked Powell and State. The first was Powell’s coming trip to Syria. Bellowed Newt: “The concept of the American secretary of state going to Damascus to meet with a terrorist-supporting, secret police-wielding dictator is ludicrous.”

Ludicrous? But Powell’s trip was personally approved by Bush.

State’s second sin is in creating the “Quartet” – America, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union – and approving its “road map” for a Middle East peace. To Newt, this is “a deliberate and systematic effort to undermine the president’s policies … by ensuring they will be consistently watered down and distorted” by Russia, France and the U.N.

But it was Bush himself who committed us to the “road map.”

Thus, the White House rightly saw Newt’s attack on Powell as an attack on, and warning to, the president himself.

Newt also blasted State for making us friendless in the world and failing to convince Turkey to let us use its territory in the Iraq war. But the man who failed to persuade Turkey was not Colin Powell but Paul Wolfowitz of Defense. And our alienated allies do not point to Powell as America’s problem, but to the neocons clustered around AEI and to Newt’s icon, Donald Rumsfeld.

In short, Newt savaged State for the failures of his own crowd and attacked Powell for pursuing the president’s policies.

Whoever put Newt up to it, the speech backfired. Not only was he berated by old friends like Jack Kemp, he was dismissed by an assistant secretary of state as an “idiot” and by Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage as a nutball: “It is clear that Mr. Gingrich is off his meds and out of therapy.”

And almost no one is defending Newt. Kemp says that Newt’s speech did “enormous collateral damage.” But the real damage appears to have been done to Newt himself, the neocons and perhaps to Rumsfeld. For the attack on the Bush-Powell policy, many believe, had to be cleared by the Pentagon. And it is being taken as the opening thrust in a power struggle between State and Defense for the control of foreign policy.

But why would the neoconservatives, in their hour of power after victory in Iraq, attack the most popular man in Washington?

Answer: The Bush-Powell agenda and the neoconservatives’ agenda, one and the same in Iraq, have diverged sharply – over Syria, over the road map and over whether pressure should be applied to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

While the neocons may be powerless to force Bush to confront Damascus, they are not powerless to prevent him from pressuring Israel. And in standing by Sharon, they have powerful allies – in the Israeli Lobby, in the Amen Corner commentariat, among the Tom Delay-AIPAC Republicans and with Evangelical Christians.

Moreover, Sharon is ready to resist. According to the New York Times, Sharonites consider the Bush-Powell road map to be only a “show” put on for the benefit of Britain and Tony Blair. And Israeli Finance Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu is confident Israel can handle the White House. “Pressure is expected, but we can and must resist it,” says Bibi. “It is in our power to affect American policy.”

In short, Bibi is warning the White House that if Bush tries to push Israel, Israel and its friends will push back, and show him who runs U.S. Middle East policy. Newt and the neocons were knocked down in Round One, big time, but they are by no means knocked out.

The battle for control of U.S. foreign policy has only just begun.