Q&A: Edward Luttwak
The military strategist talks about Israeli security, Henry Kissinger, the Arab Spring, and the death of Osama Bin Laden
By David Samuels
Edward Luttwak is a rare bird whose peripatetic life and work are the envy of academics and spies alike. A well-built man who looks like he is in his mid-50s (he turns 70 next year), Luttwak—who was born in 1942 to a wealthy Jewish family in Arad, Romania, and educated in Italy and England—speaks with a resonant European accent that conveys equal measures of authority, curiosity, egomania, bluster, impatience, and good humor. He is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, and he published his first book, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, at the age of 26. Over the past 40 years, he has made provocative and often deeply original contributions to multiple academic fields, including military strategy, Roman history, Byzantine history, and economics. He owns a large eco-friendly ranch in Bolivia and can recite poetry and talk politics in eight languages, a skill that he displayed during a recent four-hour conversation at his house, located on a quiet street in Chevy Chase, Md., by taking phone calls in Italian, Spanish, Korean, and Chinese, during which I wandered off to the porch, where I sat and talked with his lovely Israeli-born wife, Dalya Luttwak, a sculptor.
The walls of Luttwak’s donnish study—which is by far the nicest room in the Luttwaks’ house, with the best view, and might otherwise have served as the dining room, if Edward and Dalya were more like their neighbors—are lined with bookshelves containing the Roman classics, biographies of Winston Churchill, works on military history and strategy, intelligence gathering, Byzantine art, old atlases, and decorations and plaques from foreign governments. Luttwak’s work as a high-level strategic and intelligence consultant for the U.S. Defense Department, the National Security Council, the State Department, the Japanese government, and the defense departments and intelligence services of other countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East (he appears to be spending a lot of time in South Korea and China) is also augmented by a parallel life as an “operator,” about which he is both secretive and obviously proud.
While the details of Luttwak’s life as a private intelligence operative are sketchy, he has been actively involved in military and paramilitary operations sponsored by the U.S. government, foreign governments, and various private entities. By his own admission, he has been directly involved in attacks on physical targets, interdiction efforts, and the capture and interrogation of wanted persons—although “admission” is clearly the wrong word here, since he is almost boyishly eager for visitors to understand his familiarity with the nuts and bolts of special ops and cites his own field experience to support his estimations of people like Gen. David Petraeus, whose reputation as a counter-insurgency genius he dismisses as a fraud. He is also careful to state that his activities have never violated U.S. law. The Walter Mitty-ish component of Luttwak’s enthusiasm for his other life—academic by day, special operator by night—seems less significant in his psyche than a driving appetite for physical risk that has helped him understand military strategy and related policy questions in a way that the current generation of Western policymakers often does not.
Loved and loathed, and capable of living multiple lives, any one of which would quickly tire out a less intellectually and physically robust man, Luttwak glories in the undeniable fact that he is not the usual Washington think-tank product. His instinctive tendency to reject common wisdom as idiotic, combined with his need to prove that he is the smartest person in every room, has deprived him of the chance to shape events in the way that every policy intellectual not-so-secretly craves. Yet his first allegiance is clearly to the habits of mind that have made him one of the most brilliant strategic thinkers in America, capable of understanding the psychological and practical necessities that drive human action in a highly original, insightful and counterintuitive way.
We met last month, at the height of a rainstorm. What follows are selectively edited portions of the transcript of our interview, during which I made a point of not asking him about his childhood experience as a Jewish refugee in Europe, which seemed like a subject for a different conversation.
I think that if America had been able to tolerate a second Henry Kissinger, that person would have been you.
Kissinger at 88 is writing brochures for Kissinger Associates. His last book on China is one such work written by the staff at Kissinger Associates. It is designed to curry favor with the Chinese authorities and nothing else.
I know him personally very well, but he is such a deceptive person; he’s a habitual liar and dissembler. Although I’ve spent a lot of time talking to him, I have no insight on him at all. His book ends with a paean to U.S.-Chinese friendship and how every other country has to fit in. I have to review it for the TLS, but I’ve been delaying it by weeks because I don’t know whether it is a case of senility or utter corruption.
There are two differing interpretations of the events of the Arab Spring. The dominant one is: “Here is this marvelous wave of popular revolutions where everyone uses Facebook and Twitter to spread democratic ideas.” The other is that “Rickety state structures held together by repressive police and state apparatus are now collapsing into tribal bloodshed.”
Well, any dictatorship creates an unnatural environment, analogous to that of taking peasants from the field and putting them in an army, where they get uniforms and are drilled and disciplined. Dictatorships attempt to turn entire populations into well-drilled regiments. The North Korean regime takes it to the logical extreme of actually having the entire population drilled in regiments. The Ben Ali and Mubarak dictatorships were attempting to regiment their populations by having state structures imposed on them. Both of them, for example, were able to create loyal police forces.
Once the regiment dissolves, then the people are released and they revert to their natural order. They stop wearing uniforms, they put on the clothes they want, and they manifest the proclivities that they have. A few Egyptians are Westernized, hence they have exited Islam whatever their personal beliefs may be. But otherwise, there is no room for civilization in Egypt other than Islam, and the number of extremists that you need to make life impossible for the average Westernized or slightly Westernized Egyptian who wants to have a beer, for example, is very small. The number you need to close all the bars in Egypt is maybe 15 percent of the population.
Do you think stepping away from Mubarak was a mistake or it made no difference?
I think it made no difference. The regime was senile. Literally.
How much of a role do you think the so-called “democracy promotion” efforts of the United States under President George W. Bush, including the invasion of Iraq, played in the increasing instability of the Arab regimes, and how much of their collapse was the result of their own senility?
I will pretend that this is an easy question; it’s not. The easy answer is that Bush and the Bush Administration for a brief period of less than two years were on a democracy-promotion binge. They used a pickax and attacked a wall, seemingly making an impression, and perhaps they caused some structural damage. The Iraq War, with the defeat, humbling, and execution of a dictator, was a big blow with a pickax. On the other hand, when the regime becomes sufficiently involuted as to become hereditary, which is what happened in Syria and appeared to be happening in Egypt, then you are dealing with senility of the regime embodied: “The dictator is old.” So, both answers are true.
There have been many different explanations given over the past 10 years for the strength of the American-Israeli relationship, ranging from the idea that Israel has the best and most immediately deployable army in the Middle East, to the idea that a small cabal of wealthy and influential Jews has hijacked American foreign policy.
You mean the Z.O.G.? The Zionist Occupied Government?
Personally, from an emotional point of view, myself, as me, I prefer the Z.O.G. explanation above all others. I love the idea that the Zionists have sufficient power to actually occupy America, and through America to basically run the world. I love the idea of being a member of a secretive and powerful cabal. If you put my name Luttwak together with Perle and Wolfowitz and you search the Internet, you will get this little list of people who run the American government and the world, and I’m on it. I love that.
Anytime you need an added jolt of ego gratification, you open your laptop and confirm the fact that you rule the world.
In Pakistan, there are millions of people who go to schools where they are taught that I am the ruler of the universe. So, emotionally speaking, I would explain everything that happens by referring to the Z.O.G., the Zionist Occupied Government, which is run by a small cabal of people, and that I am one of them.
Now, if I’m forced to actually think about this question, I would say that the cleanest analytical way of understanding the American-Israeli relationship is to say that the post-1945 career of the United States as a world-meddling, imperialist power has forced Americans to be very foreign-oriented. Many American families have had their sons killed overseas, and many other Americans have become foreign-oriented for many reasons. Among them there is a group of Christians who read the Bible, who believe in the Bible to some degree as a document that registers God’s will. For them, Israel is the proof of the truth of the Bible. Hence, the notion that the United States should be supporting rather than opposing Israel has now become expected, which was absolutely not true in 1948 when the United States did every possible thing to prevent the existence of Israel by systematically intercepting arms flows to the Jews.
Therefore, if we in the Z.O.G. didn’t really run everything, and there was no Zionist influence, then this solid mass of foreign-aware Americans, who also happen to be Bible-believers—we’re talking 50 million people—to them, the only foreign policy that counts is America’s support for Israel. Period.
Many American Jews are viscerally uncomfortable with this kind of support. They say, “Oh, look at these Bible-thumping Christians who want to make us kiss Jesus. The only reason they like Israel is so they can turn it into a landing strip for their God.”
You are now invoking a second constant—
Why are so many Jews so stupid about politics?
They have not had a state for 2,000 years, they have had no power or responsibility and it will take centuries before they catch up with the instinctive political understanding that any ordinary Englishman has. They don’t understand politics, and of course they confuse their friends and their enemies, and that is the ultimate political proof of imbecility.
When you look at the current conduct of American policy in the Middle East, do you see any coherent policy or strategy?
Obama is no different than most previous administrations that come into office with ready-made solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Jimmy Carter was the first one, and his plan was redacted by Zbigniew Brzezinski. It led to Sadat’s journey to Jerusalem because his brilliant idea was to subject Egyptians and Israelis to a Soviet-American condominium, which was a terrible idea, and so Sadat created his own reality. It was really one of the funnier moments in history. The national security adviser officials, and I believe Brzezinski himself, came out with a lot of negative statements when Sadat first made his announcement because he was ruining their policy scheme, which was, of course, impossible.
Obama is in that tradition. He came in with an impossible policy scheme, which is first you get Israelis to stop agreeing to settlements, and then you proceed. Of course, that doesn’t make any sense. When you draw a border that is what matters. The Israelis removed all the settlements from Sinai without any American involvement in two minutes after the agreement was made with Egypt.
[The phone rings. Luttwak breaks into impossibly perfect Italian. I wander out onto the porch to talk to Dalya and return 20 minutes later, as he is finishing up the call.]
There’s nobody involved who is anti-Israeli like there were in the past, when there was a strong Arabist position in the State Department. The people in the Obama Administration read the New York Times and they don’t know Arabic, and therefore they are operating systematically with false categories. The fundamental error with regard to settlements is a very simple one: When borders are established, borders are established, and settlements are neither here nor there. This notion that when some faction of Israelis puts a camper on a hilltop that this changes anything is a fantasy.
A fantasy both on the part of the people who put the campers on the ground and also American policymakers.
They’re both equally deluded.
Do you anticipate violence this fall between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
I don’t anticipate violence this fall. War leads to peace. Peace leads to war. So, now logically we should have war. And the Iranians, of course, would love to pay for one. But the moment there is an intifada, the Palestinian regiment collapses and gangsters take over. So, the moment the violence escalates they stop fighting and they start talking peace. The moment the talking appears to be approaching an actual peace, they start an intifada.
Do you think the cost of the violence and other social ills that come out of the stalemate you are describing is something Israeli society can easily afford, or do you think there is any alternative to it?
I’m not sure it’s a cost.
Because the strategic depth that it affords and the control over those borders is more important?
Listen, my wife is a very good cook. And we have a housekeeper, who is an even better cook. It’s a weird situation, but I think my housekeeper is a better cook than any restaurant in Washington. She is a simple woman with no education, from Chile, and she just happens to have a superhuman talent. She being such a good cook, she achieves wonderful effects with very strange ingredients, and strange combinations of ingredients. Israel’s success as a state has been made possible by Arab threats of different kinds. Arab violence or threats of violence are part of the Israeli soup. There are certain levels of violence that are so high that they’re damaging, and there are also levels that are so low they are damaging. There is an optimum level of the Arab threat. I would say for about nine days of the 1973 war, the level of violence was much too high. Even when Israelis were successful, the level of violence was destroying the tissue of the state. Most of the time, the violence is positive.
When you say that the effects of Arab violence are positive, you mean that they generate social cohesion inside Israel?
Lenin taught, “Power is mass multiplied by cohesion.” Arab violence generates Jewish cohesion. Cohesion turns mass into power. Israel has had very small mass, very high cohesion. If only the Palestinians understood that, they would have attacked the Jews with flowers.
Shimon Peres says, “Iran is a decaying corpse of a country and the idea that they are any long-term threat to anybody, based on demographics and based on the rickety state of their economy, is a joke. So yes, it would be terrible if they ended up with an atomic bomb, but otherwise, Iran is not a long-term strategic threat to anybody.”
I think to get a good view on Iran you have to put yourself in the shoes of Hezbollah. Hezbollah is wholly dependent on Iran. Without Iran, Hezbollah is just a band of hotheads with a few thousand highly trained men. So, view Iran from Hezbollah’s point of view. What do you see? It’s a regime that has been around since 1979 in one way or the other. Is it consolidated? Is it functioning better and better and getting more and more support? It’s not. Is it getting more dependent on police repression or less? The answer is more. So, from the Hezbollah point of view, you realize that your days are counted because the regime is in a downward spiral.
There is a good measure of social control in Iran, and that is the price of genuine imported Scotch whiskey in Tehran, because it’s a) forbidden, and b) has to be smuggled in for practical purposes from Dubai, and the only way it can come from Dubai is with the cooperation of the Revolutionary Guard. The price of whiskey has been declining for years, and you go to a party in north Tehran now and you get lots of whiskey. And it’s only slightly more expensive than in Northwest Washington.
But on the other hand, the regime is doing something for which they will have my undying gratitude—that is, they have been manufacturing the one and only post-Islamic society. They created a situation in which Iranians in general, worldwide, not only in Iran, are disaffiliated. They are converting Muslim Iranians into post-Muslim Iranians.
What do you make of the Obama Administration’s increasingly close diplomatic alliance with Turkey? There seems to be this effort to build up the Turks as an alternative hegemon to Iran in the region, even as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, is trying his best to create an Islamic one-party state.
Hillary Clinton and her staff are not fools. Therefore, they must know that the Turkish foreign minister is a fool. I know him personally. The man is an idiot. Hillary Clinton and her advisers are not idiots. No advantage would be served for the United States to recognize where Erdogan is really going. It’s much better to pretend that he’s a member of NATO and North Atlantic Alliance and all the rest of it.
One way to look at the place of Israel in this landscape is “Wow, you have a functioning neo-liberal state with a tech economy second to Silicon Valley amidst the rubble of all these failed Arab states. Imagine the Syrian army trying to attack anybody. Egypt’s army is incapable of doing anything despite $10 billion worth of American weapons, Iran is falling to pieces, Lebanon is still a mess, Jordan is a joke of a country with a Palestinian majority.” On the other hand, you could look at it and say, “Israel is a tiny country in a chaotic neighborhood where it will always get sucked into conflicts with its neighbors and will never have a moment of peace.”
Yes, everything you say is correct, but there is a third element you are omitting. The very innermost circle of Israeli security is actually within the 1967 borders. And there you have almost 1.5 million Arabs, some Christian, some Muslim. The current situation is helping consolidate their loyalty to the Israeli state. If you ask them, “Are you loyal to the Israeli state?” They will say, “Oh no, we hate them all.” Are they involved in terror plots? The answer is that out of the 1.5 million, the ones involved in terror plots or even plain criminality of any sort, they could all sleep in my house. Or if not, they could sleep in a motel.
But there is even a more fundamental issue within Israel, which is the functioning of the Israeli economy and its impact on Israeli society. What’s happened, as you know from these latest demonstrations, is that the Israeli economy has become so successful that it has generated big numbers of millionaires, which means that four-room apartments in Tel Aviv cost as much as they do in New York. Israel is becoming Aspen, Colo., where normal people have to travel 20 miles to go to sleep because they can’t live anywhere within Aspen proper.
Are strategic minds nurtured through upbringing and education, or is the ability to think strategically an inborn gift, like mathematics?
It’s a gift like mathematics. The paradoxical logic of strategy contradicts the logic of everyday life, it goes against all normal definitions of intelligence we have. It only makes sense if you understand the dialectic. If you want peace, prepare for war. If you actively want war, disarm yourself, and then you’ll get war. Virile and martial elites understand that kind of thinking instinctively.
Here’s an easily falsifiable statement, but there’s something in it that interests me and I want you to pick it apart. I would start with the moment when George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin and said, “I looked into his eyes and saw this was a man I could really trust.” So, my thesis is this: If you’re Vladimir Putin, and you rise to the top of this chaotic and brutal society after going through the KGB, you must be some kind of strategic genius with amazing survival skills, because the penalty for failure may be torture or death. This kind of Darwinian set-up exists in many countries around the world. What does it mean to be head of the security services in Egypt? It means that you had to betray your friends but only at the right time, and you had to survive many vicious predators who would have loved to kill you or torture you, or otherwise derail your career. By the time you become Vladimir Putin or Omar Suleiman, your ability to think ahead and analyze threats has been adequately tested.
By contrast, what does it take to become a U.S. Senator? You have to eat rubber chicken dinners, you have to impress some rich people who are generally pretty stupid about politics, and smile in TV commercials. The penalties for failure are hardly so dire. And so, American leadership generally sucks, and America is perennially in the position of being the sucker in the global poker game. That’s the thesis. So, tell me why it’s wrong.
Even if your analysis is totally correct, your conclusion is wrong. Think about what it means to work for a Putin, whose natural approach to any problem is deception. For example, he had an affair with this athlete, a gymnast, and he went through two phases. Phase one: He concealed it from his wife. Phase two: He launched a public campaign showing himself to be a macho man. He had photographs of him shooting a rifle, and as a Judo champion, and therefore had the news leaked that he was having an affair. Not only an affair with a young woman, but a gymnast, an athlete. Obviously such a person is much more wily and cunning and able to handle conflict than his American counterpart. But when such a person is the head of a department, the whole department is actually paralyzed and they are all reduced to serfs and valets. Therefore, what gets applied to a problem is only the wisdom of the aforementioned wily head of the department. All the other talent is wasted, all the other knowledge is wasted.
Now you have a choice: You can have a non-wily head of a department and the collective knowledge and wisdom of the whole department, or else you can have a wily head and zero functioning. And that is how the Russian government is currently working. Putin and Medvedev have very little control of the Russian bureaucracy. When you want to deal with them, and I dealt with them this morning, they act in very uncooperative, cagey, and deceptive ways because they are first of all trying to protect their security and stability and benefits from their boss. They have to deceive you because they are deceiving their boss before he even shows up to work. And they are all running little games. So, that’s the alternative. You can have a wily Putin and a stupid government. Or an intelligent government and an innocent head. There’s always is a trade-off. A Putin cannot be an inspiring leader.
One final question. When I heard the Bin Laden news and you look at the circumstances surrounding his place of residence, and the length of his stay there, it seems clear that he was sold to the U.S. by somebody inside the Pakistani security apparatus, no?
I don’t believe that at all.
You think that the CIA independently developed this information?
First of all, it was not the CIA because the CIA doesn’t run interrogations in Guantanamo.
You believe the story about the courier?
I believe it and I believe it categorically. Look, the Pakistanis had been sheltering Bin Laden. But in these matters, the only way to proceed is to develop thoughts that are based only on uncontroversial facts. Any analysis of the Bin Laden story tells you that there was active Pakistani complicity simply because people cannot go to Abbottabad and live in a compound without somebody asking questions. For one thing, Pakistan has this system where foreign citizens have to obtain the residence permits and renew them, and there are foreigners including Arabs living there, and they would be asked to show their papers. Pakistani complicity is certain. That’s point one. Point two: The guy uses couriers. Therefore, if you’re going to find him, you had to find the courier. The courier story is not the cover story.
The proof of this is that if they got the information from some Pakistani guy, if one of the protectors of Osama decided to sell out, they would have known what was in the compound, and if they had known what was in the compound, they would not have attacked it the way they did. The attack against the compound reflected the central fact they did not know what they would find inside. The only thing that they hoped to find was Osama Bin Laden, among other objects, furniture, walls, people. Had a Pakistani provided the information, they would have provided two pieces of information, not just one. One is that Osama Bin Laden is there and two, a platoon is not there.
You understand the thing that keeps bothering me.
Now you are entering an area that is highly technical, and I’m not at liberty to speak because I’m in this line of business myself so there are limits to what I can tell you. But tell me what bothers you?
What bothers me is that you have a secret that was obviously known by more than one person. Let’s say that only three people in the ISI knew that Bin Laden was there.
The people who knew that he was in Abbottabad were a minimum number of some 12 people, and the reason is that you had to keep telling the police not to enter, you had to communicate with the other parts of the Pakistani state. But I repeat, but if American information had come from inside Pakistan, and there was knowledge of what was in the compound, they would have not attacked the compound in this way.
If 12 people know a secret, then there are also many people surrounding those 12 people who might also have access to some part of that information.
So, in other words, there are fragments of that secret.
With that many people knowing a big secret over that long a period of time, something must have leaked.
I know the courier information would tell you that Osama Bin Laden is in that space and nothing else. And the military operation that was mounted reflects that fact. Whoever designed that military operation had the kind of information that is consistent with the courier and is not consistent with any other story.
If I am in the receipt of information about Bin Laden’s whereabouts from a source in the ISI who wanted to submarine his boss, or gain the support of America, or pay off his mistress, I might design an operation that would match my cover story about the courier, who definitely existed, but might not have led anyone back to Bin Laden’s house.
No, no, no. It’s a very technical thing. It has to do with how you attack a target when you know that there are maximum of two people who will shoot at you or three people who will shoot at you, neither of the three being trained gunmen, versus how you design an attack on a target when you think there might be 25 people shooting at you. That’s all. The official word is that there was a courier, and I’m inclined to believe it. Because when somebody tells you how something happened, operationally speaking, do not disbelieve it until you have evidence that tells you that it’s wrong. Then you can pursue some other theory. All the information I have is consistent with the courier story because the courier story would tell you that there’s the bad guy in the space but nothing else.
Why kill him?
They were under orders to kill him.
Wouldn’t Osama Bin Laden be a source of useful intelligence? Alternately, one good reason to kill him is that you have a deal with the Pakistanis—“we’re gonna get rid of this problem”—then you need to kill him, because otherwise he might start talking about who protected him for the past 10 years.
There was no deal with the Pakistanis. There’s no institutional integrity. Therefore you cannot make deals with the Pakistani system. They would betray each other. There was no deal.
They killed Bin Laden simply because of the inconvenience of a trial?
They killed him because of the fact that if we captured Bin Laden, every Jihadist in the world would have been duty-bound to kidnap any American citizen anywhere and exchange him for Bin Laden.
David Samuels, Tablet Magazine's literary editor, is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker.
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