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Q&A: Edward Luttwak

The military strategist talks about Israeli security, Henry Kissinger, the Arab Spring, and the death of Osama Bin Laden

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Edward Luttwak in Washington, 2007. (Jamie Rose/Getty Images)

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?

Yes.

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.

Luttwak Q&A

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.

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Shalom Freedman says:

This was a very interesting interview. I only wish it had focused more on the security situation of Israel. There are major negative developments occuring now, the increasing hostility of Turkey, the possibility of a total turn to hostility of Egypt, the acceleration of the Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit, the delegitimization effort that will be the natural by- product of the Palestinians U.N. venture, the failed foreign policy of the Obama Administration and loss of American clout in the world. I would have liked to have heard Luttwak’s suggestions as to what Israeli leaders should be working toward in the months ahead. By the way I do not concur with David Samuels’ dismissal of the Egyptian military as incapable of operation. They are armed with the best American weapons and are a large force. There are also other threats including the missiles of Syria and those of Hezbollah Hamas and especially Iran. The Turks have a huge and competent Army which seems on the surface unlikely to engage in active hostilities against Israel. But who knows? Erdogan is proving all the time how deep his hatred is of Israel.
One more point. Luttwak is good but he has been wrong more than once in the past.

Great interview; a refreshing breath of non-PC air.

philip mann says:

The Egyptian army runs on American parts and supplies. If they wanted to start another stupid war against Israel,they would run out of parts before they got out of the garage.

With Syria devouring itself, Iran is more isolated than before. Hizbollah probably will have an ad on ebay,looking for a new HQ.

Turkey may be a problem, but they are far,far off from hostilities.

I would go love to Lutwack`s ranch with a case of Glenlivet,just to hear this guy hold forth on his huge range of experince.

I am sure David Samuels did not choose this very nasty and unrealistic photo of Edward (my husband)- it must have been the work of one of his “loathers” at the magazin…

Dave4321 says:

Fascinating

Phoebe says:

Thank you for this interview, which was fascinating and a pleasure to read — the closest thing, alas, that most of us will have to the opportunity to spend a morning with Mr. Luttwak ourselves.

Full disclosure may be appropriate here: I read Coup d’Etat when I was twelve years old, and have been something of a fangirl ever since. It makes me very happy to find this, and feel that my twelve-year-old self had taste I need not blush for today.

A.Druce says:

What an interesting and fascinating article. I would love to have been a fly on the wall. Just reading his answers has made me feel slightly less worried about the future. Or am I being very naive?

Schlomo Liu says:

You should follow this with a Dalya Luttwak interview. She seems equally fascinating.

Philip Rothman says:

It would have been interesting if Prof. Luttwak had been queried about his wildly inaccurate forecast of US casualties prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Read this.

Love his take on Kissinger who IMHO along with Cheney belongs in the dock for criminal behavior.
What’s the problem with the photo?

Mrs. Luttwak,

My side of the world, statesmen ALL try their bestest to look fierce & stern.

Supposed to give ‘em “gravitas” (somewhat FAKE on occasion).

But I’m pretty sure outside of his (horrible) job scope, he’s a nice man (somethin’ you of all people should know better).

Unlike the OTHER fella (I chanced upon back in ’05 on a little-red-dot-of-an-isle) who’s “a habitual liar and dissembler”.

Lynne T says:

A fe months ago, at the behest of a friend, I attended a debate which featured Kissinger and Fareed Zakaria against Niall Ferguson and a Chinese engineering prof whose name escapes me. The motion was whether or not the 21st century belonged to China, with Kissinger and Zakaria speaking against. (A pretty dumb motion, considering we’re barely a decade in.) Kissinger certainly didn’t display any sign of senility.

Beatrix says:

Lots of perceptive analysis, but no solutions. He must take sides and care about who wins. Has he no solutions in order for his side to be a winner?

Interviews like this certainly help us see who the real enemy is.

Feisal Alykhan says:

Madam/Sir!

Whatever the truth….thanx for the fun read…

Happy High Holidays

Feisal

Good article, noticed a small error:

” He is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University”

CSIS is not affiliated with Georgetown University, although many of its scholars teach there. It is a not-for profit think tank – csis.org

Thanks for a terrific interview. I have no doubt Luttwak is one of his generation’s most intelligent and perceptive readers of world history and international relations. Still, reading his work over the years, one is constantly struck by how wrong and stubborn he can be. Nonetheless, I will never stop admiring him for his ability to write so well and for a wit able to spin a title such as the now-infamous “Give War a Chance.”

Awesome interview. We’re not getting a lot of the picture, but what he fills in about the elisions we don’t see: it paints quite a picture.

The interviewer is unintentionally hilarious! He sounds like me in the early days arguing with a much older, more experienced friend who is the only intelligent Leftie I know. I would ask leading questions and get schooled.

Thanks for publishing this!

Jacob.Arnon says:

Luttwak’s books are well worth reading.

Sec’y Clinton is not a fool? Is that right? Is that what the very smart Edward Luttwak said?

Perhaps, she is not a fool but she certainly provides a very convincing imitation. Illustration: Clinton is all about reviving “peace talks” with Abbas. The purpose of these talks is not peace but rather an agreement that would require substantial, concrete, dangerous, and irrevocable Israeli concessions in exchange for gossamer promises of peace, PROMISES ON WHICH ABBAS COULD NOT DELIVER EVEN IF HE WANTED TO (and every peace of available evidence suggests that he does not). It can be safely predicted that when Abbas has wrested all that he can from Israel, he will be “terminated” by the animals that run Gaza, the ultimate beneficiaries of any agreement made by Abbas.

But, because there is no one else around, Abbas has become Clinton’s Great White Hope. Clinton’s belief in Abbas and in the durability of any agreement made by him is pure folly, of the same character and quality as the great power self-deceptions at Munich in 1938 or the Western reliance upon Soviet assurances that resulted in the betrayal of Poland at Tehran and Yalta.

“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.”

Ergo dipso facto macto. This guy’s logic is tizzight!

Christopher Rushlau says:

He was famous “long ago” (like in a Beatles song) and then we proposed to attack Iraq and he predicted a massive Stalingrad kind of battle because of all the Iraqi artillery and mines. I remember laying out this position to my French-Canadian lady barber here in Maine. I could tell she didn’t quite get it.
He really was a good analyst at what he would have called a middling operational-strategic sense. No, that framework (tactics-operations-strategy), which he introduced me to, and which my being an NCO in the National Guard (“the general’s slot is already taken,” the intake doctor had warned me) had proven useful, describes his own case. He tries to have strategic ingenuity but there is no such thing. There is tactical ingenuity, operational art, and strategic decisiveness, as he said.
Trying to be strategically ingenuous (that doesn’t quite work, but maybe it does), even ingenious, turns foreign policy into a joke. As of the end of the first section of the interview, he and Samuels are having a good joke in the last row of the high school classroom. Z.O.G., hardy, har, har.

Christopher Rushlau says:

If we’d captured Osama, every Jihadist would have tried to capture a USer to trade for him. You know this how?
The pattern is confirmed. The Zionist Occupation Government of the US, the security of Israel based on its always being moderately under attack, and so on. But then this point which Samuels does not pursue–that the income-wealth pyramid in Israel is unsustainable. Success is killing it.
The simplest premise for that analysis is that fascism is toxic to itself. Racism, likewise. You can have a New York City in the US but not in Palestine. Why not? There is no hinterland to sustain it. Porous borders, not going to happen.
So Luttwak sees Israel as a dead end. So what does he say about this? He says, if we take prisoners, they will take prisoners, and then we’ll have to deal with them.
Is it his fault he’s a 70 year old fifteen year old? Someone, like his wife, should wise him up.
But ultimately it’s his own fault.
Creighton Abrams (according to Lewis Sorley): “I’ve heard of a man being mostly honest, but I doubt it was a permanent condition.”
Peace works. God is not a fool. Grow up.

Christopher Rushlau says:

That sounded rude and intemperate, not in keeping with the philosophy of this website? I agree. But worse than that, it doesn’t tell anybody very much. It’s like calling someone an idiot.
I make trouble for people these days, shooting my mouth off. I marvel at my own, what’s the word, temerity? But what’s happened is that I’ve lost my fear of saying the wrong thing–or I’m losing it. I’m recovering the sense of candor I had when I was seven years old.
Suffering, bad luck, something made me put it away and try to game the world, game life. What is a little kid afraid of? Being in charge. What’s a really little kid want to be? In charge. “The noble seek power.”

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Charles says:

I’d love to read a similar interview with someone as insightful and well connected, but who is at the heart of the Arab or Muslim elite.
(Of course, there is no such thing as a single Arab or Muslim elite, but multiple elites, but still.)

 Clinton isn’t a fool – she’s a sellout and a traitor, as are the Muslim Brotherhood moles that currently permeate Washington DC.

http://1389blog.com/category/islam/jihad/muslim-brotherhood/mb-moles/

Got it. Turkey’s minister can’t be an idiot but W can be. 

Emrah says:

Turkish history has no hostility to jews, contrary it has a lot of example of friendship. Current situation is Erdogan’s and his Party’s own standing, but they have all the mass media on their hands and shaping public sentiment however they want. Strangely even the tv channels belong to american media tycoons like bloomberg, cnn-turk, msnbc, sky-turk are all in the same line with erdogan controlled media.

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Q&A: Edward Luttwak

The military strategist talks about Israeli security, Henry Kissinger, the Arab Spring, and the death of Osama Bin Laden