Q&A: Edward Luttwak
The military strategist talks about Israeli security, Henry Kissinger, the Arab Spring, and the death of Osama Bin Laden
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.
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