Newt Gingrich's ability to generate controversy and headlines has never stopped at the water's edge. A little over a year into his tenure as speaker of the House in 1995, the New York Times reported that Gingrich had already been called an "imbecile" by his counterpart in the Iranian Majles, condemned in an official resolution of the Jordanian parliament, compared to a young Margaret Thatcher by the British foreign secretary, and described as "America's surrogate president" in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine.
Gingrich's tenure as speaker is best remembered for his engineering of the Republican takeover in 1994, orchestration of the government shutdown of 1995, and the drawn-out impeachment battle with President Bill Clinton. But Gingrich was also unusually active and outspoken on foreign policy for a House speaker. And many of the positions he articulates on the campaign trail today can be traced back to the stances he took on the key national security battles of the Clinton years.
Gingrich's reputation for strident rhetoric emerged early. When he took over the speakership at the beginning of 1995, the country's foreign-policy establishment was preoccupied with the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Bosnia. The Clinton administration, under congressional pressure, had recently agreed to stop enforcing the arms embargo against Bosnian Muslim forces. But in an appearance on Meet the Press on Dec. 5, 1994, the speaker-elect, who only a few months earlier had described Bosnia as a solely European issue, demanded the administration go further and deliver an ultimatum to the Serbs, saying that if they invaded Bosnia, "We would reserve the right to take you apart, and we would do it in three to five days, and we would paralyze your capacity to function as a society."
In keeping with his longstanding skepticism of the United Nations, Gingrich described U.N. forces in the former Yugoslavia as "totally incompetent" and suggested they pull out. Interestingly, for the man who would go on years later to describe sharia law as a "mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it," Gingrich suggested that Islamic countries pay to arm their coreligionists in Bosnia in order to create a "balance of terror" with Serb forces in the region.
It's a bit hard to draw parallels between Bosnia and today's foreign-policy debates, but many of Gingrich's foreign-policy talking points have changed remarkably little over the years. The line "I'm a hawk, but I'm a cheap hawk," which has drawn applause from several debate audiences in this primary, was actually first used in a speech in April 1995. As early as his first year as speaker, Gingrich was arguing, as he does now, that the only way to change Iran's behavior was to support the overthrow of the Islamic Republic -- a stance that Iran's Foreign Ministry said "betrayed a lack of mental balance."
Gingrich's longstanding interest in cyberwarfare and future weapons systems was also very much in evidence early in his speakership, when he suggested that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might employ hackers to interfere with U.S. commerce using false American Express numbers. (Considering that this was 3 years before Google was founded, Gingrich deserves some credit for his prescience.)