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