By Barry Rubin
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.
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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.
Luttwak’s brief answer is that conflict and challenge don’t weaken Israel but are a source of greatness and success. “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.”
The question’s approach reflects the currently dominant idea that conflict is always negative, risk is bad, and that therefore government must create a totally safe environment. In contrast to the previous point about comprehending other societies, understanding that glorified wimpiness is a dreadful notion is deeply embedded in American history and society, which is why European models must be brought in to justify the “nanny state.”
Here’s where American exceptionalism shines, in showing that people capable of choosing their own diet and health insurance plan can achieve greatness while those living on a perpetual dole and under a “for your own good” set of rules cannot. This is also an important reason why Israel innately appeals to the vast majority of Americans.
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.
I believe that this most basic of strategic notions — which the American people understand as a result of their own history and culture — has been largely lost on the currently ruling elites today.
Samuels then asks an absolutely brilliant and important question which can be summarized as follows: If you are going to rise to rule a country like Russia or Egypt, you must be tough and wily:
Some kind of strategic genius with amazing survival skills, because the penalty for failure may be torture or death. … 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.
There is a lot of truth in this view but that’s also valid for Luttwak’s critique. He points out that this kind of dictatorial, charismatic leadership also weakens a country because it reduces everyone else to the level of “serfs and valets.” They sink into passivity and either deceive the boss or rigidly implement bad orders. This is one of the main weaknesses of Third World radical, Communist, and other such dictatorships that leads them into disasters and explains why they don’t become prosperous, stable societies.
A free citizenry freed from excessive state control or supervision and armed with a pluralistic capitalism will beat an over-centralized state for this very reason. That’s a key factor for the inevitable failure of the currently dominant ideas and policies in America even though they seem superficially to be neat, orderly, and guided by what Mark Levin calls “masterminds” who have a utopian blueprint and who have read lots of books.
Millions of minds able to operate flexibly and willing to adapt to the real world and changing conditions are going to do better than a handful of self-proclaimed geniuses who spend their time talking to each other, have a rigid worldview, and possess only narrow experience.
What makes Luttwak great, among other things, is his ability to combine those two worlds, to merge unblinking, un-naïve acquaintance with gritty reality and great wider knowledge as well, combining both smarts and wisdom.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International
Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.
Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition),
The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle
East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.