Newt on Nation Building, In His Own Words

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“Unlike Obama,” Newt Gingrich likes to say on the campaign trail, “I actually studied American history.”

Gingrich plays up his mastery of the history of this country on the stump, and American history is the subject of nearly all the twenty-five books he’s written or co-authored. But his graduate dissertation has nothing to do with the nation’s founding or the Civil War. “Education Policy in the Belgian Congo, 1945-1960” is the title of his 304-page dissertation, completed in 1971.

It may seem an odd choice for the history student who already had designs on a career in American politics. Gingrich’s advisor at Tulane was a historian of Modern Europe, but more than that, an inquiry into the Belgian opportunity in the Congo – which Gingrich calls at one point “virtually a planner’s dream” – fits right in line with a lifelong fascination. Even as a boy, a Time profile noted in 1995, Gingrich was drawn to “tales of men who brought old empires crashing down and built new ones in their place.”

The dissertation is right in line with that. It is not a history of the Congolese people who were governed and educated by the Belgian colonizers. Instead, it is a policy evaluation of how Belgian men leveraged their opportunity to build a new civilization from the ground up. 

Gingrich’s version of the Belgian legacy in the Congo may not sound familiar to students raised up on Heart of Darkness or King Leopold’s Ghost. Where those works detail the violent atrocities committed against the Congolese people under Leopold II, Gingrich’s interest is squarely on the wonky details of the Belgian system in the mid-twentieth century. Impediments to executing on ideas were few, Gingrich notes:

Belgian colonialism was in fact a model of technocratic government. It analyzed and planned for Congolese economic development with a thoroughness that virtually none of the now independent African states can match… the very nature of a colonial relationship made it possible for Belgian government planners to restructure Congolese society with a degree of freedom unthinkable in a self-governing country.

In academics as in politics, Gingrich's main interest is how power operates in systems. The main characters in Gingrich’s telling are all Belgians, and in particular, the three groups of Belgians who made up the decisions in the Congo. “This assemblage of bureaucrats, priests and businessmen set the general tenor of colonial policy. On a day-to-day basis it ran the colony. However, the three triumvirate members ultimately had different interests—stability, salvation and profits respectively.”

How the Belgians leveraged this opportunity of a blank slate is the sole focus of the dissertation. As Leopold’s Ghost author Adam Hochschild pointed out in The New York Times this week, this dissertation on education policy leaves out details about students, teachers and classrooms. Gingrich did not travel to the Congo during his research, and cites no interviews with Congolese people. “Absent Congolese voices and lives,” Hochschild wrote, “the dissertation is as dry as a stale biscuit.”

Gingrich and Colonialism

In 2010, colonialism figured back into Gingrich’s talking points, when he called President Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview “the most predictive model of his behavior” in an interview with the National Review.

Later that month on WNYC, Brian Lehrer asked the former Speaker to clarify his remarks. “I mean I’m sure you weren’t for colonial rule,” Lehrer asked. “So what does that mean in a negative sense?” Gingrich responded:

Well, in a very minor sense it means you send Winston Churchill’s bus back to Britain. It means you don't see Winston Churchill as the man who helped defeat the Nazis or the man who helped stop the Soviet Union. You see him as somebody who tried to preserve the British Empire.  It means you start out every morning with a belief that the West somehow exploited the rest of the world, and therefore the West is not worthy of equal treatment.

His description of colonialism in his dissertation was more measured in 1971. At the outset, his aim is to explore “the good as well as the bad aspects of colonialism. It would be just as misleading to speak in generalities of ‘white exploitation’ as it once was to talk about ‘native backwardness.’ We need to know what kind of exploitation, for what reasons, and at what price.”

Generally, Gingrich concludes that Belgian legacy in the Congo is mixed. “Belgian colonialism left the Congo with a solid infrastructure, an encouraging basic welfare and education system but a pathetically inadequate leadership cadre.”

He ultimately concludes that the education experiment in the Congo was a failure, but because of inadequate planning and poor execution—not the colonial model itself. The last paragraph of the dissertation reads:

This dissertation began by suggesting that the Belgian Congo had been virtually a planner’s dream. However, the bureaucracy lacked adequate information to develop a timetable for modernization. It lacked adequate experience to understand the repercussions of a partial modernization policy. It lacked the internal power to force either members of the triumvirate to follow its modernization plan. It lacked the external power to compel the Belgian people to provide the resources needed to modernize the colony. It is now clear that the dream of technocratic planning had all too many hidden limitations and so became a nightmare.

The conclusion, then, is classically Gingrichian. The technocrats' ideas were not sweeping enough, and even in a country without self-government, they hadn’t concentrated enough power to make it work.  

The Lessons Learned

While serving in Congress, Gingrich’s policies did not exhibit this expansionist zeal. His most aggressive advocacy was reserved for his domestic agenda. As Jordan Michel Smith notes in Salon, it was on foreign policy where then-Speaker Gingrich was most willing to forge alliances with Democrats, backing Clinton’s strategy in the Balkans, for example. Smith says that September 11 profoundly changed Gingrich’s rhetoric and positioning on foreign policy. In an American Enterprise Institute speech less than two months after the terrorist attacks, Gingrich was already looking past Afghanistan:

It would be an act of extraordinary folly for us to back down after the Afghan campaign and not do whatever is necessary. I thought the president took the first step the other night when he described Saddam as evil and said he had better let the inspectors back in. But if Saddam is still in power and there are no inspectors three years from now, then we will have lost this war, even if we do well in Afghanistan, because Iraq is a vastly greater threat to our cities than is Afghanistan.

He also stressed the importance of aggressive public relations campaign alongside military campaigns and said an essential part of that was robust foreign aid.

When we win, we have to be generous. I would argue that the other part of the comprehensiveness is, if we win in Afghanistan, which I believe we will, the following week, aid and reconstruction, new irrigation, new health care, new food. People around the Islamic world have to see vividly that being on the American side pays off.

Six months later, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cited Gingrich’s advice in a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney available through Rumsfeld’s online archives. “It is pretty clear there has to be a new entrepreneurial model of nation building. A model has to be fashioned, and then all the various national and international aid structures probably need to be thought through and undoubtedly reorganized and reoriented to try to achieve it,” Rumsfeld wrote in April 2002, basically laying out the fundamental questions driving the new approach to war advocated by neoconservatives. “Newt Gingrich has some good ideas on the subject,” Rumsfeld said.

Watch: Anna Sale on Newt's Dissertation


By June 2005, the Bush administration was well into reevaluating their assumptions about Iraq, and Rumsfeld referred to advice from Gingrich again in a letter to the Commander of Iraq Central Command Gen. John Abizaid “about the way ahead in Iraq.” He attached a memo from Gingrich, which the former Speaker had titled “PRINCIPLES FOR VICTORY IN IRAQ.”

Most important, the once student of nation building under colonialism wrote, was buy-in from the population.

The center of gravity is the Iraqi people and their willingness to side with us to create democracy and to have safety, health, prosperity and freedom (which is the simple language that describes what people want for themselves and their children). If we loose [sic] the passive or active approval of the Iraqi people and being anti-American becomes the popular thing we will lose the war no matter how many people we send to Iraq., we will lose the war….Killing bad Iraqis and foreign fighters is not the center of gravity. The center of gravity can be measured by simple metrics each morning, each week, and each month: are more Iraqis supporting us than in the last measurement?

“Implementation is as important as policy,” Gingrich concluded, echoing conclusions of his dissertation 30 years before. “We spend so much time on policy decisions that we often forget that we have to actually force the policy into implementation.”

In sum, Gingrich’s views and language about nation-building have varied, based on the history that unfolded between his dissertations writing in 1971. But one theme has been constant throughout: his absolute conviction to another theory of history – the Great Man theory – that a single leader with a big idea can shape the course of civilization.