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Newt and "American Solutions": Great Data, Horrible Conclusions

By       Message Dan Shafer       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   4 comments

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I've always had mixed feelings about Newt Gingrich. On the one hand, his politics and mine will probably never align completely on any topic. On the other hand, he is one of the best-educated, best-informed and most articulate of those with whom I disagree and I often find his comments thought-provoking and insightful. Back in the 1970's he wrote as piece on technology that was so far ahead of his Congressional colleagues I actually wrote him a note of congratulations. The man can think so clearly when he wants.

Sadly, that's not the case in his remarks before the Newish National Fund on Nov. 15. While couched in language that gives the appearance of thoughtful insight, this piece reads to me like more of the "war is the answer" mentality of the American Right, taken to an extreme. I don't see how he -- or anyone for that matter -- can get around the fundamental reality that violence breeds violence and that if peace is the objective, peace is the way. The only way to stop violence and gain peace -- if peace be the objective (which is a point at which Mr. Gingrich and I clearly part company) -- is to stop responding to violence with more violence.

But let me get to a few specifics in Gingrich's talk.  I'd  like to say up front that there's a lot here that I can and do agree with, but I'm going to focus here only on those major points I think are worth writing about because I disagree with them.

Early in his talk, Gingrich says, "And I know of no case historically where you defeat a guerrilla movement if it has a sanctuary." I respect his credentials as an historian and I suspect he's right. The problem is, until today, every guerrilla movement -- at least as far as my memory and research reveal -- has been a national or regional one. In those situations, it is possible to deny a movement its sanctuary because the geography is both defined and confined. In the case of the current encounter with stateless and unlocated guerrillas we call "terrorists", there is no such thing as a sanctuary. These people can take up residence wherever they choose, with or without the knowledge or complicity of a "host" government. If the FBI is to be believed -- and I don't doubt this for a moment -- the United States is, in a sense, harboring terrorists because they know they have cells and individual participants on our soil but we can't or won't root them out.

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So his historical analogy and argument about sanctuary deprivation don't apply to the current situation.

He cites a six-month series of national surveys and then he describes some of the methodology of those surveys this way. "When asked the question 'Do we have an obligation to defend the United States and her allies?' the answer is 85 percent yes. When asked a further question 'Should we defeat our enemies?' - it's very strong language - the answer is 75 percent yes, 75 to 16."

This is a classic case of asking loaded questions with emotional language that results in a poll that produces a pre-selected set of responses. Neither of those questions is relevant to the current situation in Iraq, let alone Iran. First, there isn't a shred of proof other than right-wing screeds that the United States and her allies (of which we have a dwindling number, it should be noted) need defending against any identifiable enemy. Which brings us to the second question. If one could actually identify an enemy that threatens the United States and its safety, of course a huge percentage of Americans would vote for defeating them.

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The problem here is the "enemy" is terrorism, which is not an enemy at all but a political philosophy and strategy (or rather set of strategies) that can -- and I think this is absolutely crucial -- never be defeated simply because "it" doesn't exist as such. To eradicate terrorism, you'd have to locate and kill every individual terrorist. And the irony, as we've seen but failed to learn in Iraq, is that by killing terrorists, you create more terrorists.

So these specific poll questions are loaded and abstract and from a scientific polling perspective prove nothing more than that, asked in the properly misleading way, they can become an apparent defense of the idea of defeating terrorism. (By the way, I went and actually downloaded the polling data from the Web site and found that the vast majority of questions asked in the poll were quite good and revealed a huge amount of potentially useful data. I just think Gingrich over-simplified here, perhaps in an attempt to make his data understandable but certainly to support the positions he and his organization, which he founded, take.)

As he ends the portion of his talk about the poll, he says, by way of conclusion, "The complaint about Iraq is a performance complaint, not a values complaint." For the reasons stated above, I disagree with his conclusion based on the polling results. But I think he misses the point that it is a values complaint precisely because it is a war which does not involve, in the perception of the vast majority of Americans, any values they are willing to support with the blood of young American soldiers and largely innocent Iraqi citizens.

Gingrich ties two ideas together in the following observations. "When asked whether or not Al-Qaida is a threat, 89 percent of the country says yes. And they think you have to defeat it, you can't negotiate with it." The first sentence is understandable and accurate. The second, however, is an extrapolation that cannot be justified. As I explained earlier, neither Al-Qaida as a group nor terrorism as a strategic plan is an enemy in the classic sense and in any case cannot be defeated. In a very real historical sense -- and Gingrich knows this, I'm sure -- civilized nations have been fighting the scourge of terrorism almost from the beginning of time. Declaring war on it does nothing to improve the chances of success, which are and always will be zero, just by definition. It is also worth noting that, as far as I can tell at least, the poll never tied the name of Al-Qaida back to the "enemies" and also did not ask whether the United States should defeat either terrorism or any specific terrorist group. If that link existed, you can bet Gingrich would have touted it loudly.

As he nears the conclusion of his talk, Gingrich outlines the solution set he thinks is needed. "We had better design grand strategies that are radically bigger and radically tougher and radically more honest than anything currently going on, and that includes winning the argument in Europe, and it includes winning the argument in the rest of the world." Note that he doesn't suggest we even need debate outside Western nations; it is as if the views of the rest of the world simply don't matter. I don't think that is an accidental oversight on his part.

In other words, America is so right that its point of view must prevail throughout the world. Never mind that European nations have longer histories, Asian nations have deeper understanding of humanity at a spiritual level, African nations have histories longer than those of Europe and the Middle East has more experience dealing with stateless terrorism than this country is likely ever to have. In our arrogance, we cannot conceive of losing a debate with anyone over the state of the world and how to "fix" it. I suggest that it is precisely this closed-minded hubris, in part at least, that has led us to be in the situation we find ourselves in now. Excessive nationalism has always been a threat to world peace and no nation today is guilty of more nationalist excess than the United States.

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I won't take the time here to dissect his revisionist view of the history of the Cold War and its end except to suggest that as he reveres Ronald Reagan and completely overstates his role in and responsibility for the decline of the Soviet Union, he is guilty of the same sort of narrow view that exalted the British Tories of the mid-1940s in Newt's mind. He allows his personal political prejudice to overwhelm history whenever it is convenient to do so.

So while I respect some of what Gingrich offers in this rambling, unstructured lecture, I find his core theses to be weak, unsupported, narrow-minded and bred in arrogance.


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Dan Shafer is a long-time technology writer, political commentator and sports fanatic who has been on the Web since before it was called that and who has one of the longest-running blogs. A long-time liberal activist, Dan has recently begun turning (more...)

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