There are some people so brilliant and original that you shouldn’t want to miss a single word they write or say. Even when you don’t agree with them, their views inspire a better understanding of this strange world we live in, the complex people who dwell there, and the absolutely loony-tune era we have been sentenced to endure (for how much longer?).
Edward Luttwak should be high on any such list of great minds. As he turns 70, a very able interview with David Samuels, one of the smartest American reporters on international affairs, in The Tablet is well worth reading. I’ll leave the description of Luttwak’s fascinating background, colorful personality, and extremely interesting discussion on the killing of Usama bin Ladin to the interview. But here, I want to convey and analyze some of the ideas Luttwak raises.
Having known him for almost 40 years, I think I can point to two “secrets” of Luttwak’s greatness that are of wider interest. First, he is absolutely honest in saying what he thinks. This characteristic has tremendous costs, especially in Washington, D.C. It is a trait more suited to an intellectual than to a policymaker. One sacrifices influence for the satisfaction of having been right and keeping one’s integrity. We who listen are the beneficiaries.
The second point to learn from, which I’ve never heard anyone say before for obvious reasons, is that an American who wants to understand, write about, or be involved in international affairs must learn how to think differently from an American. Indeed, American military, intelligence, and diplomatic personnel — if they are going to be any good — must succeed in doing that.
I hesitate to say this, especially at a time when so many radicals from abroad have been reshaping American academia and even the mass media. So I will quickly add that this must be combined with a deep sense of American values, appreciation for the United States, and a refusal to adopt the stances of adversaries. The very fact that the United States is such an exceptional country is demonstrated precisely by the need to make some adjustments for comprehending how others from different types of societies act and view the world. Otherwise, as I point out in a new article that I invite you to read, “Bush and Obama Together At Last: In Misunderstanding the Middle East,” your vision isn’t going to work.
For example, here’s Luttwak about regimes being overthrown in the “Arab Spring”:
Dictatorships attempt to turn entire populations into well-drilled regiments. … 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. … But otherwise, there is no room for civilization in Egypt other than Islam, and the number of extremists that you need to make [a moderate, Western-style society there impossible] is very small … maybe 15 percent of the population.
In other words, most Western analysts, journalists, and even policymakers — especially nowadays — are looking in a mirror and think they’re looking out the window. They don’t want to deal with others as they are, especially because the tortuous illogic of multiculturalism leaves them with only two choices: either they must assert that there are no differences or that the other society is superior to their own.
Of course, when such people have to deal with a society that is closer to their own, that makes them very uncomfortable. After all, it is the other side that is supposedly the right side of history. Luttwak has no time for such nonsense as exalting in the virtues of one’s own weakness.
Thus, Luttwak’s response to the kind of question so typical of Western assumptions:
Do you think the cost of the violence and other social ills that come out of the stalemate [in the conflict with Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims] is something Israeli society can easily afford, or do you think there is any alternative to it?
The usual implication of this kind of question is that the answer is “no” and that therefore Israel better make big concessions and take large risks in order to escape from this dreadful, inevitably losing trap.