Q&A: Edward Luttwak

The military strategist talks about Israeli security, Henry Kissinger, the Arab Spring, and the death of Osama Bin Laden

Edward Luttwak is a rare bird whose peripatetic life and work are the envy of academics and spies alike. A well-built man who looks like he is in his mid-50s (he turns 70 next year), Luttwak—who was born in 1942 to a wealthy Jewish family in Arad, Romania, and educated in Italy and England—speaks with a resonant European accent that conveys equal measures of authority, curiosity, egomania, bluster, impatience, and good humor. He is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, and he published his first book, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, at the age of 26. Over the past 40 years, he has made provocative and often deeply original contributions to multiple academic fields, including military strategy, Roman history, Byzantine history, and economics. He owns a large eco-friendly ranch in Bolivia and can recite poetry and talk politics in eight languages, a skill that he displayed during a recent four-hour conversation at his house, located on a quiet street in Chevy Chase, Md., by taking phone calls in Italian, Spanish, Korean, and Chinese, during which I wandered off to the porch, where I sat and talked with his lovely Israeli-born wife, Dalya Luttwak, a sculptor.

The walls of Luttwak’s donnish study—which is by far the nicest room in the Luttwaks’ house, with the best view, and might otherwise have served as the dining room, if Edward and Dalya were more like their neighbors—are lined with bookshelves containing the Roman classics, biographies of Winston Churchill, works on military history and strategy, intelligence gathering, Byzantine art, old atlases, and decorations and plaques from foreign governments. Luttwak’s work as a high-level strategic and intelligence consultant for the U.S. Defense Department, the National Security Council, the State Department, the Japanese government, and the defense departments and intelligence services of other countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East (he appears to be spending a lot of time in South Korea and China) is also augmented by a parallel life as an “operator,” about which he is both secretive and obviously proud.

While the details of Luttwak’s life as a private intelligence operative are sketchy, he has been actively involved in military and paramilitary operations sponsored by the U.S. government, foreign governments, and various private entities. By his own admission, he has been directly involved in attacks on physical targets, interdiction efforts, and the capture and interrogation of wanted persons—although “admission” is clearly the wrong word here, since he is almost boyishly eager for visitors to understand his familiarity with the nuts and bolts of special ops and cites his own field experience to support his estimations of people like Gen. David Petraeus, whose reputation as a counter-insurgency genius he dismisses as a fraud. He is also careful to state that his activities have never violated U.S. law. The Walter Mitty-ish component of Luttwak’s enthusiasm for his other life—academic by day, special operator by night—seems less significant in his psyche than a driving appetite for physical risk that has helped him understand military strategy and related policy questions in a way that the current generation of Western policymakers often does not.

Loved and loathed, and capable of living multiple lives, any one of which would quickly tire out a less intellectually and physically robust man, Luttwak glories in the undeniable fact that he is not the usual Washington think-tank product. His instinctive tendency to reject common wisdom as idiotic, combined with his need to prove that he is the smartest person in every room, has deprived him of the chance to shape events in the way that every policy intellectual not-so-secretly craves. Yet his first allegiance is clearly to the habits of mind that have made him one of the most brilliant strategic thinkers in America, capable of understanding the psychological and practical necessities that drive human action in a highly original, insightful and counterintuitive way.

We met last month, at the height of a rainstorm. What follows are selectively edited portions of the transcript of our interview, during which I made a point of not asking him about his childhood experience as a Jewish refugee in Europe, which seemed like a subject for a different conversation.

I think that if America had been able to tolerate a second Henry Kissinger, that person would have been you.

Kissinger at 88 is writing brochures for Kissinger Associates. His last book on China is one such work written by the staff at Kissinger Associates. It is designed to curry favor with the Chinese authorities and nothing else.

I know him personally very well, but he is such a deceptive person; he’s a habitual liar and dissembler. Although I’ve spent a lot of time talking to him, I have no insight on him at all. His book ends with a paean to U.S.-Chinese friendship and how every other country has to fit in. I have to review it for the TLS, but I’ve been delaying it by weeks because I don’t know whether it is a case of senility or utter corruption.

There are two differing interpretations of the events of the Arab Spring. The dominant one is: “Here is this marvelous wave of popular revolutions where everyone uses Facebook and Twitter to spread democratic ideas.” The other is that “Rickety state structures held together by repressive police and state apparatus are now collapsing into tribal bloodshed.”

Well, any dictatorship creates an unnatural environment, analogous to that of taking peasants from the field and putting them in an army, where they get uniforms and are drilled and disciplined. Dictatorships attempt to turn entire populations into well-drilled regiments. The North Korean regime takes it to the logical extreme of actually having the entire population drilled in regiments. The Ben Ali and Mubarak dictatorships were attempting to regiment their populations by having state structures imposed on them. Both of them, for example, were able to create loyal police forces.

Once the regiment dissolves, then the people are released and they revert to their natural order. They stop wearing uniforms, they put on the clothes they want, and they manifest the proclivities that they have. A few Egyptians are Westernized, hence they have exited Islam whatever their personal beliefs may be. But otherwise, there is no room for civilization in Egypt other than Islam, and the number of extremists that you need to make life impossible for the average Westernized or slightly Westernized Egyptian who wants to have a beer, for example, is very small. The number you need to close all the bars in Egypt is maybe 15 percent of the population.

Do you think stepping away from Mubarak was a mistake or it made no difference?

I think it made no difference. The regime was senile. Literally.

How much of a role do you think the so-called “democracy promotion” efforts of the United States under President George W. Bush, including the invasion of Iraq, played in the increasing instability of the Arab regimes, and how much of their collapse was the result of their own senility?

I will pretend that this is an easy question; it’s not. The easy answer is that Bush and the Bush Administration for a brief period of less than two years were on a democracy-promotion binge. They used a pickax and attacked a wall, seemingly making an impression, and perhaps they caused some structural damage. The Iraq War, with the defeat, humbling, and execution of a dictator, was a big blow with a pickax. On the other hand, when the regime becomes sufficiently involuted as to become hereditary, which is what happened in Syria and appeared to be happening in Egypt, then you are dealing with senility of the regime embodied: “The dictator is old.” So, both answers are true.

There have been many different explanations given over the past 10 years for the strength of the American-Israeli relationship, ranging from the idea that Israel has the best and most immediately deployable army in the Middle East, to the idea that a small cabal of wealthy and influential Jews has hijacked American foreign policy.

You mean the Z.O.G.? The Zionist Occupied Government?

Yes.

Personally, from an emotional point of view, myself, as me, I prefer the Z.O.G. explanation above all others. I love the idea that the Zionists have sufficient power to actually occupy America, and through America to basically run the world. I love the idea of being a member of a secretive and powerful cabal. If you put my name Luttwak together with Perle and Wolfowitz and you search the Internet, you will get this little list of people who run the American government and the world, and I’m on it. I love that.

Anytime you need an added jolt of ego gratification, you open your laptop and confirm the fact that you rule the world.

In Pakistan, there are millions of people who go to schools where they are taught that I am the ruler of the universe. So, emotionally speaking, I would explain everything that happens by referring to the Z.O.G., the Zionist Occupied Government, which is run by a small cabal of people, and that I am one of them.

Now, if I’m forced to actually think about this question, I would say that the cleanest analytical way of understanding the American-Israeli relationship is to say that the post-1945 career of the United States as a world-meddling, imperialist power has forced Americans to be very foreign-oriented. Many American families have had their sons killed overseas, and many other Americans have become foreign-oriented for many reasons. Among them there is a group of Christians who read the Bible, who believe in the Bible to some degree as a document that registers God’s will. For them, Israel is the proof of the truth of the Bible. Hence, the notion that the United States should be supporting rather than opposing Israel has now become expected, which was absolutely not true in 1948 when the United States did every possible thing to prevent the existence of Israel by systematically intercepting arms flows to the Jews.

Luttwak Q&A

Therefore, if we in the Z.O.G. didn’t really run everything, and there was no Zionist influence, then this solid mass of foreign-aware Americans, who also happen to be Bible-believers—we’re talking 50 million people—to them, the only foreign policy that counts is America’s support for Israel. Period.

Many American Jews are viscerally uncomfortable with this kind of support. They say, “Oh, look at these Bible-thumping Christians who want to make us kiss Jesus. The only reason they like Israel is so they can turn it into a landing strip for their God.”

You are now invoking a second constant—

Why are so many Jews so stupid about politics?

They have not had a state for 2,000 years, they have had no power or responsibility and it will take centuries before they catch up with the instinctive political understanding that any ordinary Englishman has. They don’t understand politics, and of course they confuse their friends and their enemies, and that is the ultimate political proof of imbecility.