Newt Gingrich has been president for only two hours, but he’s already roiling the Middle East: He will – in those first two hours, he promised Wednesday – order the U.S. Embassy in Israel moved to Yerushalayim.
Secretary of State John Bolton will handle the details.
If you thought the U.S. had a roller-coaster ride through the Middle East in the wild days of the Arab Spring, just wait until the Republicans retake the White House. In a series of addresses to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington on Tuesday, Republican presidential candidates laid out a series of specific and deliberately provocative moves aimed at reasserting American strength and the American alliance with Israel in a region whose stunning changes the Obama administration has handled with extreme care and caution.
The candidates’ promises were real and symbolic, and often quite specific. On the hardest-line end, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum virtually promised military strikes on Iran.
Iran’s nuclear push “increasingly leaves only two options: a military strike or a nuclear Iran,” Perry said, indicating his preference for the former.
Gingrich took only a slightly softer line, promising to switch to a policy of “regime replacement” toward Tehran, and, specifically, that he would covertly (if, apparently, not secretly) sabotage the country’s main oil refinery.
“It’s better to stop them early than to stop them late,” he said.
But the other candidates offered an array of symbolic moves that also would set an entirely new tone toward a region in which Obama has sought to welcome new, fledgling Democratic regimes and to hope that flashes of Islamist leanings represent mere growing pains.
Moving the embassy – a perennial, and perenially unfilled campaign promise – was a popular one. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann told the appreciative audience that she already had secured a pledge from a private donor to pay the moving expenses of the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Gingrich’s main rival at present, Mitt Romney, also offered to move the embassy, though he did not offer a timeline or payment scheme.
He did, however, open a new front on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. President Romney would press, he said, to have the Iranian “indicted for the crime of incitement to genocide.”
Some candidates – notably Perry and Santorum – signaled a grim view that military conflict with Iran is likely. “I know people in this country are tired of war,” Santorum said, before making the case that a “long war” against Islamic extremism already is under way and must continue to be engaged.
A Romney surrogate, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, argued that a more confrontational stance toward Iran actually would represent a better chance for peace.
Romney would produce “compliance in the face of strength, which you’re not getting now,” said Coleman.
“If we had a more credible deterrent, then the Iranians would be paying more attention to us and be less likely to go forward,” said the conservative Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, who grilled Romney on Iran at the event.
The forum offered a contrast in styles between the two front-runners: Romney, reading from a teleprompter, offered a wide-ranging, energetic speech. He stumbled, uncharacteristically, on some details of the Middle East (a supporter said he’d taken a red-eye flight from California and was tired) but drew applause for his odes to the private sector and his reminder that he, as a businessman, had signed “both sides” of a paycheck.
Romney was greeted with a standing ovation by a crowd – established, prosperous, disengaged from social issues – that ought to be his home base. Gingrich was professorial and received a cooler welcome but drew warm applause when he closed. His promises to force a series of debates with Obama were greeted as warmly in Washington as they are in Iowa; and his apparent grasp of the material offered a pointed contrast to his rivals. Gingrich spoke without notes – he did, however, crack a joke about teleprompters – and portrayed himself as having predicted both the American successes and failures in Iraq.
Gingrich warned that the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world is “based on a pack of lies” told about the dangers of radical Islam. And he said he would drop any niceties in the American relationship with the Gulf states, expressing outrage over “the fact that Hillary Clinton could talk about discrimination against women in Israel, then meet the Saudis.”
Gingrich wowed the crowd with his promise to offer Bolton, George W. Bush’s confrontational and hawkish U.N. ambassador, the job of secretary of state.
Joshua London, the co-director of government relations for the Zionist Organization of America, was among those who welcomed the move as a signal to enemies overseas – and in the State Department – that things were changing.
“That would cause a lot of fighting domestically, but I think it’s a healthy fight to have – even if the outcome is indeterminate,” he said
The Jewish GOP forum also put on full display the breadth of the Republican commitment to Israel. Jon Huntsman, the closest thing in the race to a representative of an older Republican foreign policy tradition of “realism,” promised to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan and Germany – but to “ensure that there is no blue sky between” the U.S. and Israel.
Organizers did not invite Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose call for a far cooler American stance toward Israel and a scaled-down foreign policy does not seem to have cost him with Iowa Republican voters as it has with the GOP establishment.
“He’s just so far outside of the mainstream of the Republican Party and this organization,” RJC executive director told the Washington Jewish Week. Inviting Paul, he said, would be “like inviting Barack Obama to speak.”