It takes hard work to evoke sympathy for Iran's odious regime. But Newt Gingrich and his fellow GOP presidential maybes proved up to the task during their recent South Carolina debate. The cheerful casualness with which they talked about deploying covert operations against Iran will make it much harder for America to win friends and influence people to achieve its foreign policy objectives.
Mitt Romney got the ball rolling by declaring that, if all else failed, he would resort to military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But such generic bromides were not good enough for Newt Gingrich. After accusing the Obama administration of being dumb about Iran, the former House speaker proceeded to say just about the dumbest thing of the night—and arguably the entire debate season. (Yes, even dumber than Rick Perry's now-immortal "Oops"). "We need maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems," this alleged brainiac opined. "All of it covertly, all of it deniable."
Gingrich obviously doesn't believe he'll become president, his post-debate poll bump notwithstanding. If he did, he wouldn't put himself in the position of having to deny in office something that he had already admitted he'd do if elected. In any event, everything he listed (all of which Rick Santorum enthusiastically echoed) has already been done. So what exactly is his beef with the Obama administration? The only clear difference is that it is better at maintaining plausible deniability than loudmouth Gingrich.
The reality, of course, is that Gingrich has as much chance of becoming president as Dick Cheney has of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. But that doesn't mean he can't do Cheney-worthy damage to America's interests and standing in the world.
Having grown up in the heyday of the Cold War in the economic basket case that was India, I know firsthand just how useful America's allegedly satanic ways are for failing regimes looking for scapegoats. Indeed, there was literally no problem too big or too small that India's rulers at the time wouldn't blame on the "foreign hand"—code for CIA. Communal riots between Hindus and Muslims? Foreign hand. Rising oil prices and inflation? Foreign hand.
The foreign hand, as Salman Rushdie once put it in a Reason interview, was the Pynchonesque conspiracy that explained almost every ill in the non-Western world. But the power of this trope was dying, thanks to overuse. However, Gingrich & Co.'s loose advocacy of covert operations will make the world even more paranoid about America's intentions. And many regimes fighting for their survival—whether the new ones in the Middle East or the old ones in Pakistan—will be tempted to pull out the foreign hand from the dustbin of history. Even before Gingrich gave them ammunition, Pakistan's major newspaper, the Islamabad Times, was fretting about many of its NGOs really being spying operations for the United States. "These agents became active in gathering intelligence, creating instability, anarchy and terrorism in Pakistan and China," it editorialized in October.
The Republican debates might be targeted at a domestic audience, but the rest of the world doesn't shut its ears. They offer other countries a window on the American psyche. And the picture that Gingrich et al. are painting would only confirm the stereotype of an ugly American willing to achieve his ends by any means necessary, long-term consequences be damned.
And America's inglorious history of covert operations shows just how nasty these consequences can be. Nothing demonstrates this better than Iran itself. America had a hand in creating this monster by first helping the Shah oust—through covert means—Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, and then arming him as he erected a pro-U.S. police state that brutalized his own people. All of this paved the way for an even more oppressive Islamist regime that Republicans now want to destabilize by using even more covert operations. But is there any guarantee that this time we'll get a nuclear-free, U.S.-friendly, Western-style democracy?
Few would deny that covert operations can sometimes offer an alternative short of all-out war to deal with nettlesome situations that can't be resolved diplomatically. But precisely because they involve morally ambiguous means and, often, serious trespasses on another nation's sovereignty, they have to be deployed sparingly and responsibly—i.e., only when they offer the least bloody way of advancing a just cause.
Gingrich, however, sounds like a sociopath when he talks about them. He makes it seem like covert operations are just another tool in America's foreign policy kit, to be pulled out whenever expedient. That makes America, not Iran, seem like the bigger threat to global stability.
The negative repercussions of this for America's foreign policy objectives cannot be overstated. It takes the moral high ground out from under pro-American voices advocating closer ties between their countries and the U.S. Without them, America can't conduct effective diplomacy, leaving brute force as its main option when major disputes arise.
Newt Gingrich is not presidential material. However, he could be a candidate for some prominent foreign policy-related Cabinet position in the event of a Republican victory next November. But America doesn't need a Dr. Strangelove to deal with Iran's mad mullahs.
Gingrich has a habit of self-destructing. Let's hope he does so before he destroys any more of America's credibility.
Reason Foundation Senior Analyst is a columnist at The Daily where this column originally appeared.