Newt Gingrich’s Deep Neocon Ties Drive His Bellicose Middle East Policy
Wayne Barrett explores Gingrich’s deep ties to the architects of the Iraq war now targeting Iran.
Casino king Sheldon Adelson’s multi-million-dollar cache of chips-on-the-table for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign has at last made him a household name outside of Las Vegas. But it isn’t just Adelson’s brand of pro-Israel, donor-driven saber-rattling that’s pushing Gingrich into far-out positions on virtually every Middle East-related question, from applauding the assassination of Iranian scientists to painting Palestinians as an historical concoction to requiring loyalty oaths from Muslim governmental appointees.
Since his days in the House, Gingrich has always attached himself to the most extreme neocon elements of American and Israeli politics. Adelson’s $18 million in contributions since 2006 only further fueled Newt’s already chronic case of bombast. And as record-making as Adelson’s super PAC and other gifts to Newt are, they wouldn’t cover the cost of a single airstrike on a single Iranian facility. The price tag on what Gingrich calls “maximum covert operations” and possibly a full-scale war on Iran—both acceptable to Gingrich--would surely compete with the human and fiscal costs of the last conflagration he helped drag us into—the war in Iraq that has gone almost wholly unmentioned this primary season.
If elected, Gingrich would be the first American president to emerge from the dark think-tank world born in the Reagan era that gave us the Iraq War and lusts now for an Iranian reprise. A Likudnik version of the Manchurian candidate, Newt has spent much of his post-Congress life in the grasp of warrior colonies like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the think tank where he became a senior fellow two months after he stepped down as speaker in 1999, remained until he declared for president last May, and worked at times alongside Dick and Lynne Cheney, Richard Perle, John Bolton, Michael Ledeen, and Paul Wolfowitz, the first Bush battalion to euphemistically land in Baghdad, self-dispatched well before 9/11.
As if spending three times as much time at AEI than he did as speaker wasn’t enough bloodless abstraction for him, Gingrich simultaneously became a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, where Don Rumsfeld was welcomed with open arms when George Bush finally had had enough of him and where Condoleezza Rice returned as a senior fellow after her eight years in the Bush administration. Gingrich was one of eight Hoover fellows to serve on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, the official war incubator chaired by ringleader Perle, and he also signed on as a board member of the AEI-tied Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a front group recruited by the White House.
Gingrich rushed as well to join the Committee on the Present Danger, a suddenly reincarnated ex-Cold War lobby embarrassed when its managing director had to resign after revelations that he’d lobbied on behalf of a nativist Austrian party that still admired the orderliness of the Third Reich. The Present Danger group, which also included Perle, was closely linked to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, another post-9/11 intellectual arsenal that listed Gingrich as one of its four distinguished advisers, equal in rank to such other pro-Israel hawks as Joe Lieberman.
As early as October 15, 2001, four days before the Afghanistan ground war began, Gingrich was already writing that “defeating the Taleban (sic) without defeating Saddam is like defeating imperial Japan and leaving the Nazis alone.” That November, he helped lay the WMD groundwork for an Iraq invasion, claiming he’d personally talked to a defector who’d headed the Iraq nuclear program and that this unimpeachable source told him “there were 7,000 people working on nuclear weapons in Iraq.” Gingrich concluded that “any reasonable person would have to come to the conclusion” that Saddam “intends to use them the first chance he gets.” This is, said the sage who now makes the same speech about Iran, “Hitler in 1935.” In 2002, his Washington Times op-ed opposed U.N. inspections of WMD facilities, insisting that the case had already been so well established that “every day spent waiting” while inspections proceeded would be “another day for Saddam to expand” his WMD program.
Ken Adelman, another member of the Defense Policy Board, told Salon in 2006 that Rumsfeld “thought very highly of Gingrich” and that, unlike other members of the DPB, Newt was invited repeatedly to visit the U.S. military’s Central Command (Centcom) headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and had actually “worked on war plans and proved very valuable,” a contention verified by Rick Tyler, the Gingrich spokesman then who is now running the super PAC funded by Adelson’s bellicose bounty. Gingrich himself told The New Yorker that he had “pretty remarkable access to all senior leadership” in the White House, from Rice to Karl Rove to his old House buddy Dick Cheney, whom he was scheduled to meet with on September 11, 2001.
Gingrich’s regular tipsheet emails to Rumsfeld during the war could run as long as 12 pages. Two ex-Gingrich military aides, William Luti and William Bruner, were ensconced in Doug Feith’s notoriously dubious Pentagon intelligence unit, and reportedly remained in touch with the ex speaker. In an hour-long 2003 interview with Charlie Rose, Gingrich offered an historical endorsement of pre-emptive war, describing it almost as an American habit, and said he was “fairly involved” in the Iraq attack, calling himself “the longest-serving teacher in the military” with “21 years of teaching brigadier and major generals” at the National War College. “I talk to people,” he explained.
One of the people he was talking to was Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, a Shiite exile group. Chalabi was a prized pro-Israel Muslim dedicated to the overthrow of Saddam, who was widely seen by AEI hawks and elsewhere as the PLO’s banker, at one time trying to dump a reported $100 million into Yasir Arafat's coffers. Chalabi convinced his neocon backers that his government in Iraq would end its trade boycott of Israel and even revive a flourishing Iraq-to-Israel oil pipeline.
Just a week after 9/11, Gingrich attended a two-day planning session of Perle’s Defense Policy Board, where Chalabi was the honored guest lecturer. Chalabi was unmistakably the supplier of Gingrich’s ballyhooed secret defector source, whose WMD information would prove as bogus as Chalabi himself. Chalabi’s “handler” inside the Bush administration was Gingrich’s former aide Bruner. In the buildup to the invasion and immediate aftermath, Chalabi, who met Gingrich, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld at AEI events in the late 90s, was a fount of misinformation, derided by intelligence professionals but revered within the Gingrich circle. No one embodies Newt’s and AEI’s clueless Iraq miscalculations better than Chalabi.
That circle had been campaigning for years to install Chalabi as Saddam’s replacement, despite Chalabi’s conviction-in-absentia on Jordan bank fraud charges, 45-year absence from Iraq, and the utter failure of his ++attempted 1995-1996 violent overthrow of the Iraqi regime. Perle, Bolton, Ledeen, Wolfowitz, and other neocons wrote President Clinton a 1998 letter urging him to back Chalabi’s coup, and Gingrich championed the siren call. Gingrich even helped steer one 1998 Iraq liberation bill through Congress, awarding Chalabi’s group up to $97 million in American aid to orchestrate an overthrow. The same crew left no doubt in 2003 and 2004 that dumping Saddam for Chalabi remained their goal.
It’s one thing for Newt, who gave his think-tank life a chatty frat aura during his Rose interview, to drink the AEI, Hoover, DPB, Present Danger, Liberation committee, Cheney/Rummy, Centcom, War College, Chalabi Kool-Aid. It’s quite another to take it intravenously in both arms until bloated.
What is most amazing about the national press corps is that we can have 19 debates and not hear a single memorable question about the war that is America’s greatest international debacle since Vietnam, with no moderator even wondering if Newt’s role as at least a junior planner schmoozing away at Centcom and in the AEI home office of its architects, merits questioning. Everyone agreed in 2008 that Hillary’s war vote and Obama’s early opposition helped decide that race; yet Newt’s enlistment in the Cheney/Rummy army that planned and boosted it goes unmentioned (as does Rick Santorum’s vote for it).
Aren’t we all entitled to learn, as my colleague Peter Beinart already suggested, if Gingrich thinks he made a mistake in the lead-up to the war and if he’s learned anything from it? Since the WMD language about Iran now used by Gingrich and his neocon allies is almost identical to war whoops that took us into Iraq, why should we listen to the same seers? It’s not just the Republican tax cut and deregulation answers on the economy that give us that déjà vu pre-meltdown chill, it’s the Iran drum roll as well. Do all of the media stars on the stage with these guys live in the same time warp, as lesson-learned adverse as the candidates themselves?
When President Obama announced the final pullout of troops from Iraq last December, Gingrich was asked about it on Face the Nation and, as usual, he cherrypicked from a wide variety of his post-invasion quotes to claim clairvoyance about the debacle, citing statements he made in December 2003 to Newsweek about Ambassador Paul Bremer taking the U.S. “off the cliff” by “giving us an assignment we couldn’t do,” ostensibly supplanting the Iraqi government with one of our own. “We’ve lost several thousand young Americans,” he mourned, noting how many more were wounded, “undertaking a project that we couldn’t do.” This remorseless and revisionist post-mortem, perhaps the low point in a gutter campaign, tried to turn the 2003 critique of easy target Bremer upside down, making it appear that Gingrich was a war opponent, though he vowed in that same Newsweek story that “victory” was the “only exit strategy.”
All Gingrich was urging back then, joined by his AEI colleagues, was that the U.S. invent an instant government with well-chosen Iraqis up front, preferably Chalabi, who was in Washington from Iraq when Gingrich did the Newsweek interview, making a pitch to be anointed president. In January 2004, Chalabi attended the state of the union speech as a balcony guest of Laura Bush, and Gingrich celebrated it on Fox that night. He pointed out that Chalabi was sitting right behind the first lady and that Bush had put Chalabi there to send a signal, adding: “That’s exactly what I was hoping for back in that Newsweek interview.” Perle and David Frum published a book that January with the same critique as Gingrich: “Our choice was either to work with Chalabi or to rule Iraq ourselves—and unfortunately we backed ourselves into that second alternative.”
A couple of months after Chalabi’s state of the union debut, U.S. military and Iraqi police, prompted by Bremer, raided Chalabi’s home and office in response to allegations that he was spying for Iran. Even though the Bush administration cut off the monthly stipend it was paying Chalabi after that raid, Gingrich stood by AEI’s man. Chalabi announced for president in 2005, but his party only won one fourth of one percent of the vote, actually slightly better than the one eighth of one percent it won a couple of years later. By 2008, General David Petraeus’s spokesman was declaring Chalabi “dead to us,” as the evidence of his disturbing Iranian ties continued to mount.
While Gingrich intermittently repeated his “occupation” objection into 2006, and continues to say now that he was a “go in and get out” kind of guy, that claim is flatly contradicted by his 2007 denunciations of any deadlines for withdrawal. He called the Democratic deadline bills “the most serious effort to legislate the defeat of America in a generation.” In a 2008 Human Events piece, inspired by the surge, Gingrich proclaimed “success is being achieved and victory is possible,” assailing those who “prefer defeat to continued struggle.”
The single constant of his Iraq potpourri of positions was that one war wasn’t enough. He reveled in references to a needed World War III, called for “a large worldwide strategy of victory,” and regretted that the Bush team “has yet to come to grips with how big and complex” this war on terror has to be, listing the Saudis, Syria, Iran, and others on his own target board. If Bush II felt an obligation to finish the job his papa left undone, Gingrich is ever ready to clean up behind both, facing down or fighting every citadel of terror.
In the January 7 ABC debate, it was Newt who brought up Iraq in response to a question about Afghanistan, noting that the situation there “began decaying within 24 hours of our last troops leaving,” making him sound as if he opposed withdrawal. That’s when Rick Perry had another “oops” moment, urging that we send troops back in, predicting that unless we did, “we’re going to see Iran move back in at the speed of light,” making Iraq an Iranian colony. Newt said, “If you’re worried about the Iranians in Iraq, develop a strategy to replace the Iranian dictatorship and Iraq will be fine.” With the same certitude that he and his sidekicks dragged us into the Iraq War, he was ready to start a new one to finally win the last one.
Gingrich’s ties to the cabal that gave us the Iraq War go back at least to the mid 90s, when he took over the House. In August 1994, he went to Israel with his then wife Marianne on an eight-day trip paid for by AIPAC, the premier pro-Israel lobby. By her own account, that’s when she met Robert Loewenberg, who ran both the Israel Export Development Corporation (IEDC), a business group championing a tax-free, high-tech trade zone, and the Institute for Advanced Strategic & Political Studies (IASPS), a think tank with ties to the Likud Party that resembled AEI’s ties to the Republican Party in the U.S. A job for Marianne with IEDC almost immediately materialized, offered shortly before Gingrich’s smashing victory that November, when the Republicans retook the House for the first time in 40 years and Newt was elected speaker. Newt was simultaneously discussing trade policy with Israeli officials. Marianne got a promotion soon after Gingrich became Speaker, though she’d only been with the company a couple of months.
Marianne later freely conceded that the think tank and export company were intertwined, with several of the same funders and staffers, many of which were American. Vin Weber, a former congressman and Newt insider, was both a Washington lobbyist for IEDC, rounding up support for it in Congress, and a trustee of the think tank. Though Marianne worked for the IEDC briefly, she was helping to put together fundraisers for the think tank as late as June 1997. Throughout the time of her varied associations with IEDC and IASPS, which ultimately led to a two-year, uneventful, FBI bribery investigation, her husband was growing closer and closer to Bibi Netanyahu, the Likud leader preparing to challenge either of the two Labor Party prime ministers who served during those years—Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, and his temporary successor, Shimon Peres.
Netanyahu beat Peres in an exceptionally close election in 1996 and served until 1999, when he badly lost a reelection bid and left office a few months after Gingrich did (Netanyahu was elected again in 2009 and is serving as PM now). “I think Netanyahu and I are visionaries,” said Gingrich after their near-simultaneous demises, “and visionaries have mercurial careers.” Oddly, when Gingrich became speaker in 1995 and was so busy trying to implement the Contract for America in his first hundred days, it was reported that the only visitor he allowed to break his single-minded focus was Netanyahu, who was an opposition leader of a foreign country, an unusual selection. He also met Sheldon Adelson, Netanyahu’s most important American ally, in 1995. Itamer Rabinovich, Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 1993 to 1996, later observed, “At the time, Bibi used Gingrich to pressure the president when it came to issues relating to the peace process.”
The think tank IASPS, a leading peace process opponent with offices in Israel and Washington, prepared a manifesto for Netanyahu that was issued shortly after he took office in June 1996 called “Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” that urged the end of “land for peace” negotiations. Gingrich was the only American political leader named in the treatise, which recommended policies it said could “electrify and find support” from a “broad spectrum” of congressional leaders, starting with Newt.
“Clean Break” was primarily written by IASPS’s research director David Wurmser, a little known commander with lots of firepower in Richard Perle’s neocon army. Having worked with Perle since he was in his 20s, Wurmser was recruited by him to found the Middle East Studies unit at AEI shortly after he finished “Clean Break.” He says Gingrich and Perle worked together at AEI on a project. Wurmser is particularly significant now because Gingrich not only named him to his campaign’s 13-member national security advisory team, but also designated him as his primary Middle East adviser. Wurmser told The Daily Beast that Gingrich “understands as an historian and a political observer much more clearly than anyone else” in the presidential field “what divides us” in the Middle East and “causes this tension.”
Perle, Feith, Loewenberg, and Wurmser’s wife, Meyrav, were among the six-member study group that produced “Clean Break,” and Perle hand-delivered it to Netanyahu, though he denied in a brief interview with The Daily Beast that he’d played much of a role in it. Netanyahu used some of its conclusions to undergird his first appearance before a joint session of Congress and in his initial policy discussions with the Clinton administration that July. In fact, IASPS and the related export company where Marianne worked, IEDC, were so tied into the Netanyahu administration that the IEDC lawyer became Bibi’s finance minister.
Though “Clean Break” was a master plan for a radically redrawn Middle East map affecting Syria and Palestine, its centerpiece was a breakthrough call for regime change in Iraq. Ahmad Chalabi was never named in the document, but its reliance on Shia with “strong ties” to Jordanian Hashemites to unseat Saddam was seen by Middle East commentators as a reference to Chalabi, with others noting that the details revealed “telltale intelligence” supplied by Chalabi. When Wurmser published an AEI book in early 1999 called Tyranny’s Ally, another think tank declaration of war against Saddam, he named Chalabi in the second paragraph as his mentor who’d “guided my understanding of the Middle East.”
Wurmser’s salute to Perle was more poignant, saying he’d known Perle since college and that Perle had liberated “many of my family members” from the Czech Republic. Perle wrote the foreword to Wurmser’s book, which celebrated the 1998 formalization of the alliance that “Clean Break” anticipated, with Jordan’s King Hussein and Chalabi having actually met in Washington to endorse a joint insurgency in Iraq, a widely dismissed neocon “fantasy” even at that time. Wurmser devoted a chapter to “Common Cause—Jordan and the Iraqi National Congress,” and Gingrich led the charge on the Hill to fund this dream. By late 2000, Wurmser was writing in the Washington Times that the U.S. had “to strike fatally, not merely disarm, the centers of radicalism in the region—the regimes of Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Tehran, and Gaza” to re-establish “that fighting with the U.S. or Israel is suicidal.”
Right after 9/11, Wurmser was retained by Wolfowitz as a Pentagon consultant, followed by a stint as senior adviser to John Bolton (who Newt has announced will be his secretary of state), and concluding with four years under Cheney. When he left in 2007, it was only after he’d already begun criticizing Secretary of State Rice’s new efforts to reignite a peace process and launch talks with Iran, strategies he deplored. He told The Daily Beast that he found Rice’s Palestinian peace talk efforts “inappropriate” and “surreal,” once more in agreement with Gingrich and Netanyahu, who blasted them even though the then Israeli prime minister, Ehut Olmert, participated in the talks. News accounts indicated that Wurmser testified in the grand jury investigating the leaks about CIA agent Valerie Plame and was even the subject of an FBI inquiry looking into the passing of secret information to Israel. Asked if he testified in the Plame case, Wurmser told us, “I am not sure what the legal stuff is—if I’m allowed to say or not. You can say I was affected by it.”
Gingrich’s views on Iran in the campaign are a reiteration of positions Wurmser took as far back as 2007, and are reminiscent of his Iraq advice. Limited strikes against Iranian nuclear targets would be useless, Wurmser said then and Gingrich says now. “Only if what we do is placed in the framework of a fundamental assault on the survival of the regime,” Wurmser declared, “will it have a pick-up among ordinary Iranians. If we start shooting, we must be prepared to fire the last shot. Don’t shoot a bear if you’re not going to kill it.” So, if this is the Iraq sequel Adelson’s seed money would fund in a Gingrich administration, Wurmser is supplying the script.
In addition to Wurmser, another one-time researcher for the defunct IASPS and current Iran war booster, Ilan Berman, is on the Gingrich advisory team, as are two more former colleagues from AEI and one from Hoover. Also on it is ex-CIA director James Woolsey, whom Wurmser saluted in the acknowledgments of his Iraq book, and who was a member of four of the groups Newt joined—Present Danger, Iraq liberation, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. Woolsey’s law firm represented Chalabi’s INC.
Gingrich’s comfort level with advisers like Wurmser can only mean that he still shares the stubborn worldview inaugurated a decade and a half ago in “Clean Break,” unencumbered by a need to explain their disastrous decade in Iraq and elsewhere. The media treats Wurmser, Newt, and the rest of this hardline and hardheaded constellation of advisers as if none of this happened, as quiescent at the end of this nightmare as they were when it started. Once again, Netanyahu’s needs are the subtext, as they were in 90s, and as Ariel Sharon’s were in the lead-up to the war. In this arena, where trillions of dollars and thousands of lives are at stake, there is no accountability or memory. Even as the same voices call us to war one more time.
Correction: The original version of this story included an embedded link in the text to a blog called the Neocon Zionist Threat. The author did not use this site in the reporting of the piece, and does not support the views expressed. The link has been redirected to the correct source.
Research assistance was provided by Jillian Anthony, Irina Ivanova, Clarissa León, Nicole Marsh, and Kyle Roerink.