I blogged on Monday about Newt Gingrich's "alternate history" speech and mentioned that he refused to say whether or not we needed to invade Iraq to change the Middle East. As Petraeus returns to the battlefield and everyone goes back to campaigning it seems fair to post his whole response to my question. It's long.
reason: You quoted Thomas Friedman, who has said it was necessary to go into Iraq in order to "burst the bubble" of the Middle East: the isolationism, the idea that America didn't really care about freedom and democracy. It seems like you left it a little murky whether, in this alternative history, whether we would have burst that bubble and gone into Iraq. Can you answer his point and address whether the Iraq War was necessary?
Gingrich: Let me say, first of all, I like the Friedman who wrote From Beirut to Jerusalem a lot more than the later books because I think it's a much more realistic book. And if you look at his description at the end of that book about Hama rules, which were the rules he said Father Assad used in massacring the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama and destroying square blocks, bombarding them with artillery. At that point Friedman understood the sheer ruthlessness that is often a part of power in the Middle East.
I believe the United States should have been prepared to use whatever resources were necessary to fundamentally change the region. You ask Reagan in 1979, "Do we have to use troops to make Poland a free country and collapse the Berlin Wall? I think he would have said "Probably not." And we didn't.
So you can't go back. I mean, we never fully mobilized. We never brought to bear all of our assets. We were never serious about this. What we've done is a series of reasonable management steps. We can manage the 23-day campaign to Baghdad. And then Bremer can manage the American administration of Iraq. But we never took seriously, backing up as the big step and saying "Wait a second, this is about a whole region." So pressuring the Syrians from day one, which was frankly easier than pressuring the Iraqis, if we were willing to do it.
Now, as I said in a speech in this very place in 2003, the State Department has had a deep passion for cutting a deal with the sultan, to a level that is frankly pathetic, where we've had American secretaries of state sitting on the runway in Damascus, refused permission to get off the plane, because they were so eager to meet with Father Assad in the 1990s. So there's been this underlying thing of "Well, you can't really pressure the Syrians." That's nonsense. Syria is run by an Allawite minority of 15 percent of the population. It's a relatively weak economy.
Similarly, the Iranians get 60 percent of their gasoline from one refinery. Tom Reid, the secretary of the air force under Reagan, wrote a memior in which he points out that in 1981 under Reagan and Casey, we decided we would indirectly sell the Soviets natural gas pipeline equipment guaranteed to malfunction. And a year later there was an explosion in Siberia so large that it looked like a nuclear explosion to the sensors on satellites. The first reaction was "Oh my God, what just happened?" It was literally the pipeline blowing up, which was a major impediment to Soviet hard currency.
Now, we have known for the last 20 years that the Abadan refinery is the only refinery in Iran. That Iran only produces 60 percent of its gas. That we have an entire Navy not occupied in Iraq. People say to me: "We're overstretched." Not in the Navy. So I start by saying countries that are serious, that have the most powerful economy on the planet, that have the most powerful military on the planet, that have the most cutting edge technology on the planet, could do lots of things. Tell me about the cell phones in Iran. Tell me about the computers in Iran. How much effort have we made to make sure the right software is there? How much effort have we made to give every student in Iran a free cell phone? To help organize the resistance? To do the things we did in Poland?
So I don't want to start and say "Yes, would invade" or "No, we wouldn't invade." I want to suggest to you that a grand strategy would have said "We're going to change the region." Now everybody who wants to change the region, I say, fine: You're on our team. Remember at one point Bush said "You're either with us or against us?" Well, what did that mean? With us for what?
I would suggest a grand strategy, if you work out this alternative history, of thinking creatively. Bring back the Reagan team, among other things. Bring back the pre-Stansfield Turner retirees from the CIA. People who had actually done this stuff. People the entire team that had done Afghanistan. There were lots of assets available in 2001 if we wanted to use them.
The frustrating thing is that Gingrich can't say the Iraq War has made all of this stuff more difficult—alienated America-friendly types in Iran, tied up resources, taken away our appetite for conflict. And I'm not sure that "fully mobilizing" for Iraq would have brought all this in line.