The Leader-Led Trade-Off

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

When George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin and said, “I looked into his eyes and saw this was a man I could really trust,” that prompted David Samuels to formulate this political thesis:

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.

Edward Luttwak does indeed tell him 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.

The Paradoxical Logic of Strategy

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

The ability to think strategically is a gift, Edward Luttwak says:

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.

A Good Measure of Social Control in Iran

Monday, September 19th, 2011

There is a good measure of social control in Iran, Edward Luttwak says, and that is the price of genuine imported Scotch whiskey in Tehran:

[B]ecause 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.

Israel’s success as a state has been made possible by Arab threats

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Israel’s success as a state has been made possible by Arab threats, Edward Luttwak says:

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.

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.

Why are so many Jews so stupid about politics?

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Why are so many Jews so stupid about politics?, David Samuels — of Tablet, “A New Read on Jewish Life” — asks Edward Luttwak:

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.

The People Revert to Their Natural Order

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Once a dictatorship falls and the regiment dissolves, the people revert to their natural order, Edward Luttwak notes:

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.

A Second Henry Kissinger

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

If America had been able to tolerate a second Henry Kissinger, David Samuels says, that person would have been Edward Luttwak — but Luttwak does not agree:

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.

Not the Usual Washington Think-Tank Product

Monday, September 12th, 2011

I love David Samuels’ introduction to his interview with Edward Luttwak:

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.

Edward Luttwak on Conversations With History

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Edward Luttwak appeared on Conversations With History a few years before his recent visit to promote The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

He makes a number of points. He emphasizes that since liberal democracies won’t do what it takes to pacify an insurgency, they shouldn’t try to occupy foreign lands; they should disengage and rely on targeted strikes, if they resort to violence at all.

Also, our understanding of war is terribly distorted, he says, by the bias our experts bring to the subject. The academics studying international relations all come to the problem of conflict hating war — but plenty of people throughout history have been quite happy to go to war.

His opinions on the Middle East and China are perhaps more contrarian.

The Double Life of a Military Strategist

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Anyone who writes a book called Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook is bound to be an interesting individual, but Edward Luttwak goes so far as to lead a double life as a public intellectual and an operator:

There’s one thing Edward Luttwak wanted me to know, before he asked if I had a cell phone, and if so, could I turn it off and remove its battery, presumably if improbably so that he couldn’t be traced. We were sitting in his office library in his family’s sprawling Victorian home in suburban Chevy Chase, Md., full of books from floor to ceiling in Greek, Latin and from the modern era, volumes by Clausewitz, Walter Lacquer, Theodore Draper’s account of Iran Contra and thousands of others. These included a recent U.S. Military Balance survey, cataloguing the F-14s, F-7s, Phantoms and every other significant piece of military anti-air equipment estimated to be held by Iran — statistics that Luttwak looked up and ticked off during the course of our interview.

“I am an operator,” Luttwak said.

Indeed he is, one who carries out field operations, extraditions, arrests, interrogations (never, he insists, using physical violence), military consulting and counterterrorism training for different agencies of the U.S., foreign governments and private interests. When we met, in February, the Drug Enforcement Agency was his latest client; Luttwak says he went to Colombia to help arrest and deliver a couple of Mexican drug runners wanted by the DEA.
Why is this 65-year-old intellectual — on the editorial boards of Harper’s, Britain’s Prospect and France’s Geopolitique, an emeritus fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — still in the business of arresting fugitives and interrogating drug dealers, I asked Luttwak. It was evident he didn’t even believe in some of the missions he was doing (the drug war is futile, he howled, a fraud, and the heads of the DEA know it’s a fraud). Is it a thrill? Luttwak admitted, that yes, it’s thrilling. He enjoys the physical thrill of it all.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Arad, in Transylvanian Romania, in 1942 during World War II, Luttwak and his family fled soon after to Italy, where his father started one of the first Italian plastics factories. At the age of 9, he was sent off by his family to a Jewish boarding school in London, where he would later attend the London School of Economics. Given his background — part cosmopolitan, part refugee — from all over Europe, it’s no surprise that Luttwak speaks a half dozen languages fluently and with evident pleasure (his phone message at home is in three languages). He still travels frequently to Europe, South America and Asia for his consulting assignments. In addition to their Maryland home, Luttwak and his wife, sculptor Dalya Luttwak, also own an ecologically friendly cattle ranch in Bolivia. (Luttwak, who told me he conducts his family’s Passover Seder in the ancient Aramaic, says he doesn’t consider himself religious, but enjoys the traditions.)

Luttwak’s career as an international defense consultant, military strategist and operator, was launched when, in 1968, as a 26-year-old graduate of the London School of Economics, he wrote what would become his seminal book, “Coup d’etat: A Practical Handbook,” about how countries and groups can both launch a junta and protect themselves from one, and which, Luttwak noted proudly, is still in print some 40 years later. “This short book is…wicked, truthful, and entertaining,” the New Yorker wrote in its review of “Coup,” which has been printed in 14 languages. Recruited to Johns Hopkins after advising the French, Israeli and other governments on military matters, Luttwak earned a PhD in international relations and started consulting for the U.S. Department of Defense, military services, the National Security Council, State Department and nascent U.S. special operations command. Soon he was doing actions for, among others, the undersecretary of defense for policy in El Salvador.

(Hat tip to Joseph Fouché.)

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

I’ve been meaning to read Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire — and his earlier The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire — but have settled, for now, for watching this Conversations with History interview:

The first seven minutes are about his academic career and the research that went into writing the book. Then he gets into why strategy is full of paradoxes — because there’s an enemy.

(Hat tip to Joseph Fouché.)

The Most Dangerous Years in the History of Human Civilization

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

It’s difficult for Americans to appreciate the fact that the 1980s were probably the most dangerous years in the history of human civilization, NerveAgent says:

In his 1983 book The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union Edward Luttwak correctly diagnosed the terminal illnesses plaguing the communist superpower, and argued that it was highly likely that the Soviet Union would attempt to consolidate its position by invading the remote western provinces of China and setting up client governments in the newly conquered territories.

The Soviets would not consider a direct nuclear attack on the U.S. unless they felt themselves in a dire emergency:

Rather than destroy the guarantor of Western Europe’s independence, a more sensible policy was to gradually undermine the NATO alliance, driving a wedge between the U.S. and the European allies. This was the primary objective of Soviet grand strategy ever since the formation of NATO, but it could have been well-served by a short and sharp military operation on the extreme flanks of the Alliance, namely in northern Norway or northeast Turkey. These poorly defended regions could be seized in one night by a well-planned invasion, after which the USSR could declare a “unilateral armistice” and offer to open immediate negotiations, which of course would be inconclusive. If NATO agreed to such negotiations, confidence in the alliance would be shattered beyond repair. If it decided to take military action to retake the lost territories, political considerations about “demonstrating unity” would no doubt mean that the task force would be a multinational hodgepodge, thus guaranteeing failure and the collapse of the alliance.

However, even though a lighting operation on the fringes of NATO could reap enormous political benefits for the Soviet Union, it also involved a great deal of risk. It was possible that the U.S. might decide to mount its own counteroffensive, unencumbered by NATO politics. It might even launch a retaliatory action against Soviet interests elsewhere in the world. Whatever the case, the risk of escalation was beyond the level acceptable for imperial aggrandizement. Anyway, by the early 1980s Soviet diplomacy was succeeding in pulling Western Europe away from the United States; there was no point to risking that progress in a blitzkrieg on the desolate frontiers of NATO. Thus, Soviet planners were likely to aim elsewhere.

Carving out small client states from Iran’s many disparate nationalities and unstable politics offered some possibilities for consolidating the Soviet hold on the Caucasus, but for the long-term security of the empire, the major threat — aside from the U.S. — was China: “…the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic are both Great Powers in a world that now counts only three, and they are adjacent, while the third is removed from both.” (p.92) In other words, the two communist powers were destined to be enemies.

Read the whole thing. (Hat tip to Joseph Fouché.)

Lessons from Byzantium

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Edward Luttwak’s new book argues that we could learn some lessons from Byzantium, a poor and weak empire that nonetheless lasted almost a millennium longer than it richer, more powerful Western Ancestor, Rome:

The Byzantines continuously relied on deterrence – any power confronting other powers must do so continuously, if only tacitly – and they routinely paid off their enemies. But they did much more than that, using all possible tools of persuasion to recruit allies, fragment hostile alliances, subvert unfriendly rulers, and in the case of the Magyars, even divert entire migrating nations from their path.

For the Romans of the Republic and the undivided empire, as for most great powers until modern days, military force was the primary tool of statecraft, with persuasion a secondary complement. For the Byzantine Empire it was mostly the other way around. Indeed, that shift of emphasis from force to diplomacy is one way of differentiating Rome from Byzantium, between the end of Late Roman history in the east, and the beginning of Byzantine history.

This difference in approach led the Byzantines to rely on cavalry rather than heavy infantry:

For the Romans, who believed in destroying enemies not wise enough to recognize the advantages of submission, the cutting and thrusting and besieging heavy infantry was the most important arm, because it could best achieve decisive results. By contrast… the Byzantines believed in containing but not destroying their enemies – potentially tomorrow’s allies. Therefore for them the cavalry was the most important arm because its engagements did not have to be decisive, but could instead end with a quick withdrawal, or a cautious pursuit that would leave both sides not too badly damaged.

What can America learn from Byzantium? NerveAgent summarizes:

America is neither Rome nor Byzantium; it has the military strength to annihilate its enemies utterly, but it is unable to exercise that power because of its own legalistic moralism, its fear of contravening international norms of state behavior, the opposition of other major powers in the system, and the irregular nature of most of its enemies. Yet it continues to proclaim maximalist objectives (e.g. the eradication of terrorism) while abiding by the constraints that prevent it from reaching those objectives, gradually exhausting itself in a vain pursuit of final victory and the End of History. If America should learn one thing from Byzantium, it is that war is eternal; to exert strenuously against a particular enemy is only to hasten decline, for a new enemy is always on the horizon.

(Hat tip to Joseph Fouché.)

It’s not an accident

Friday, September 12th, 2008

In explaining how to occupy and govern a foreign country, Mencius Moldbug notes that military malpractice is often not an accident:

So a Western government that uses its military as an occupying force in a foreign country, without a strong occupation based on the principle of mixed authority, without suppressing competing political and military activity, and with rules of engagement that mimic criminal-justice procedures designed for a civilized Western society, is abusing said military. I find this imprudent. You can kick a poodle. You can own a wolf. But if you own a wolf, don’t kick it.

Worse, while Professor Luttwak’s concept of “military malpractice” is technically accurate, it makes the situation sound like an accident. It is actually much worse than that.

A failed occupation, like that in Afghanistan, or a Pyrrhic half-success such as Iraq or Vietnam, is of considerable political utility to those whose theory of government predicts that military occupation of a hostile population can never succeed. This would be the “democratic,” or “progressive,” or simply “left,” side of your radio dial. Not coincidentally, this is also the side which is vending the “hearts and minds” theory, and doing its best to eradicate the “grasp the nettle” theory from human memory.

And the cycle works. When an occupation fails, it is because it failed to win “hearts and minds.” And the next occupation will be even more tender-handed. It will cower even more abjectly before the delicate flutter of the native heart. It will completely forget the fact that the native has a mind, too, and it is far easier to communicate with a mind than with a heart. It will kill more and more American soldiers, and devastate more and more foreign countries. (And other foreign countries will be devastated not by occupation, but by the lack of it — in the person of a Mugabe, a Saddam, an Idi Amin.)

Moreover, who are the soldiers who are dying in these theatrical exercises? Overwhelmingly, Amerikaners. Whose political fortunes are advanced by the repeated demonstration that “war never solves anything?” Certainly not the Amerikaners.

Thus these sabotaged occupations are revealed in their true nature: they are civil wars by proxy. The goal of war is political power. In a sabotaged occupation, the left gains political power, not in Iran or Iraq or Vietnam, but in America, by using the deaths of thousands of American soldiers to prove to the TV audience that reality and progressive reality are the same thing.

The fact that no one is thinking this consciously — progressives are overwhelmingly sincere — does not change the fact that it works.

How to occupy and govern a foreign country

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

Mencius Moldbug explains how to occupy and govern a foreign country:

[Grasping the nettle] is an old English metaphor known to all colonialists. As the rhyme goes:

Tender-handed, grasp the nettle, and it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains.

(Supposedly the toxin injectors of the stinging nettle are activated by a light brush but deactivated by firm pressure. I have not tested this personally.)

The substance of the nettle metaphor comes from a theory of civil war that is the polar opposite of the “hearts and minds” theory. Under the nettle theory, insurgencies happen because, and only because, the insurgents perceive a chance of winning.

Like all men, they fight for glory, power, and plunder. Any government can prevent and/or terminate all internal violence by making it clear to its opponents that victory is impossible, and the only results of any struggle will be ignominy and imprisonment at best, mutilation and death at worst. To convey this message is to grasp the nettle “like a man of mettle.”

The solution to the problem of colonial government, then, is to govern: to enforce order instantly, completely and without compromise, tolerating no challenge to the occupying authority whether military or political, religious or criminal. Lord Cromer, for instance, would have been simply aghast at the fact that the US occupation authorities tolerated not only native political parties, but parties with armed paramilitary wings. It has taken five years to mostly, sort of, pretty much correct this amazing elementary howler.
In summary: the theory that it is impossible, in the 20th century, for an effective modern military to occupy and govern a foreign country is simply not tenable. This illusion has been fostered by a pattern of “tender-handed” occupations, combined with a “hearts and minds” theory of insurgency that prescribes more tenderness as soon as the nettle starts to sting. Unsurprisingly, this prescription does not work. By sustaining the illusion that the quack medicine of “hearts and minds” is effective, military experts sustain the illusion that no other medicine exists and no occupation can be successful.

This is not a novel observation. My point is the same as Professor Luttwak’s: trying to run an occupation without “grasping the nettle” is military malpractice.