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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)

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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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