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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)

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.”

Luttwak Q&A

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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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