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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)

One final question. When I heard the Bin Laden news and you look at the circumstances surrounding his place of residence, and the length of his stay there, it seems clear that he was sold to the U.S. by somebody inside the Pakistani security apparatus, no?

I don’t believe that at all.

You think that the CIA independently developed this information?

First of all, it was not the CIA because the CIA doesn’t run interrogations in Guantanamo.

You believe the story about the courier?

I believe it and I believe it categorically. Look, the Pakistanis had been sheltering Bin Laden. But in these matters, the only way to proceed is to develop thoughts that are based only on uncontroversial facts. Any analysis of the Bin Laden story tells you that there was active Pakistani complicity simply because people cannot go to Abbottabad and live in a compound without somebody asking questions. For one thing, Pakistan has this system where foreign citizens have to obtain the residence permits and renew them, and there are foreigners including Arabs living there, and they would be asked to show their papers. Pakistani complicity is certain. That’s point one. 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.

The proof of this is that if they got the information from some Pakistani guy, if one of the protectors of Osama decided to sell out, they would have known what was in the compound, and if they had known what was in the compound, they would not have attacked it the way they did. The attack against the compound reflected the central fact they did not know what they would find inside. The only thing that they hoped to find was Osama Bin Laden, among other objects, furniture, walls, people. Had a Pakistani provided the information, they would have provided two pieces of information, not just one. One is that Osama Bin Laden is there and two, a platoon is not there.

You understand the thing that keeps bothering me.

Now you are entering an area that is highly technical, and I’m not at liberty to speak because I’m in this line of business myself so there are limits to what I can tell you. But tell me what bothers you?

What bothers me is that you have a secret that was obviously known by more than one person. Let’s say that only three people in the ISI knew that Bin Laden was there.

The people who knew that he was in Abbottabad were a minimum number of some 12 people, and the reason is that you had to keep telling the police not to enter, you had to communicate with the other parts of the Pakistani state. But I repeat, but if American information had come from inside Pakistan, and there was knowledge of what was in the compound, they would have not attacked the compound in this way.

If 12 people know a secret, then there are also many people surrounding those 12 people who might also have access to some part of that information.

So, in other words, there are fragments of that secret.

With that many people knowing a big secret over that long a period of time, something must have leaked.

I know the courier information would tell you that Osama Bin Laden is in that space and nothing else. And the military operation that was mounted reflects that fact. Whoever designed that military operation had the kind of information that is consistent with the courier and is not consistent with any other story.

If I am in the receipt of information about Bin Laden’s whereabouts from a source in the ISI who wanted to submarine his boss, or gain the support of America, or pay off his mistress, I might design an operation that would match my cover story about the courier, who definitely existed, but might not have led anyone back to Bin Laden’s house.

No, no, no. It’s a very technical thing. It has to do with how you attack a target when you know that there are maximum of two people who will shoot at you or three people who will shoot at you, neither of the three being trained gunmen, versus how you design an attack on a target when you think there might be 25 people shooting at you. That’s all. The official word is that there was a courier, and I’m inclined to believe it. Because when somebody tells you how something happened, operationally speaking, do not disbelieve it until you have evidence that tells you that it’s wrong. Then you can pursue some other theory. All the information I have is consistent with the courier story because the courier story would tell you that there’s the bad guy in the space but nothing else.

Why kill him?

They were under orders to kill him.

Wouldn’t Osama Bin Laden be a source of useful intelligence? Alternately, one good reason to kill him is that you have a deal with the Pakistanis—“we’re gonna get rid of this problem”—then you need to kill him, because otherwise he might start talking about who protected him for the past 10 years.

There was no deal with the Pakistanis. There’s no institutional integrity. Therefore you cannot make deals with the Pakistani system. They would betray each other. There was no deal.

They killed Bin Laden simply because of the inconvenience of a trial?

They killed him because of the fact that if we captured Bin Laden, every Jihadist in the world would have been duty-bound to kidnap any American citizen anywhere and exchange him for Bin Laden.

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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:


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:


Whatever the truth….thanx for the fun read…

Happy High Holidays


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 –

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.

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

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