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The Machiavelli of Maryland: adviser to chairwomen, “ministers ” aEUR” and the Dalai Lama | Thomas Meaney

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The long read: Military strategist, classical scholar, cattle rancher and an adviser to chairwomen, prime ministers, and the Dalai Lama. Just who is Edward Luttwak? And why do very powerful people pay vast sums for his advice?

People contact Edward Luttwak with unusual petitions. The prime minister of Kazakhstan wants to find a way to remove ethnic Russians from a city on his northern border; a major Asian government wants a plan to train its new intelligence services; an Italian chemical company wants assist settling an asbestos lawsuit with a local commune; a citizens group in Tonga wants to scare away Japanese dolphin poachers from its shores; the London Review of Books wants a piece on the Armenian genocide; a woman is having a detention combat over her children in Washington DC can Luttwak reason with her husband? And that is just in the last 12 months.

Luttwak is a self-proclaimed grand strategist, who makes a healthy living dispensing his insights around the globe. He believes that the guiding principles of the market are antithetical to what he calls the logic of strategy, which usually involves doing the least efficient thing possible in order to gain the upper hand over your adversary by confusing them. If your tank battalion has the choice of a good road or a bad road, take the bad road, says Luttwak. If you can divide your fighter squadrons onto two aircraft carriers instead of one, then waste the gasoline and do it. And if two of your adversaries are squaring off in Syria, sit back and toast your good fortune.

Luttwak is therefore of the opinion that the logic of strategy contains truths that apply to all days and places. His books and articles have devoted followings among academics, journalists, businessmen, military officers and prime ministers. His 1987 book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace is a set text at universities and military academies across the world. His official and unofficial advisory work for the US government has been praised by generals and secretaries of state. He is a familiar figure at government ministries, in the pages of leading periodicals and on Italian television.

But his work is not limited to armchair theorising. Readers who have been treated to Luttwaks counterintuitive provocations on the op-ed page of the New York Times might be surprised to know that he deems writing an extra-curricular activity. For the past 30 years, Luttwak has operated his own strategic consultancy a sort of one-man security firm that offer bespoke solutions to some very intractable problems. In his long career, Luttwak has been asked by the president of Mexico to help eliminate a street gang that was burning tourist buses in the city of Mexicali; the Dalai Lama has consulted him about the relationship with China, European governments have hired him to root out al-Qaida spies, and the US army has commissioned him to update its counterinsurgency handbook. He earns around$ 1m a year from his jobs. Its always important to get paid, he likes to insist. It protects you from the liberal problem of good intentions and from being called an intriguer.

It is seducing to imagine Luttwak as a human exiled to the wrong place and time, whose fate, like a character in Nabokov, has been reduced from old-world brilliance to something less grand in 21 st-century America. It is not hard, after all, to picture him conniving at the Congress of Vienna, or plotting assassinations in the Medici court. He has the air of the seasoned counsellor to the prince who is dispatched to deal with the Mongols and returns alone, on horseback, clutching advantageous terms on parchment.

But merely in America was the career of Edward Luttwak possible. The perpetually renewable reservoir of naivety at the highest levels of the US government has been good for business. During the cold war, Luttwak was often identified as a peculiar American species known as the defence intellectual. These were academics who served power, who were often impatient with democratic procedure, and who enraptured audiences from thinktanks to military academies with their elaborated projector-slide frescoes of nuclear apocalypse.

When he witnessed before Congress in the 1980 s, Luttwak seemed to be the latest heir in the line of saturnine visionaries from Herman Kahn to Henry Kissinger who were sure about which route the world was running. Most defence intellectuals are three-fourths defence and one-fourth intellectual, says Leon Wieseltier, the Washington fixture and literary impresario, who first met Luttwak during the Reagan years. But Edward was this figure out of a Werner Herzog film. He was not some person who had read a bit of Tacitus and now worked at the Pentagon. He knew all the languages, the geographies, the cultures, the histories. He is the most bizarre humanist I have ever met.

Outside of Washington, Luttwak is best known for his writing. His reputation still rests on his 1968 book Coup dEtat: A Practical Guide, published when Luttwak was 26. It is a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of a military manual that he wrote while working as an petroleum consultant in London. The volume explains in clinical detail how to confiscate power in various types of states. It comes with elaborate charts and a typology of victorious communiques( the Romantic/ Lyrical, the Messianic, the Unprepared) drawn from successful African coups.

The book was praised by John le CarrA( c) and warmly reviewed by critics on the left and the right. One suspects that, like Machiavelli himself, he enjoys truth not only because it is true but also because it shocks the naive, wrote Eric Hobsbawm. But for Luttwak the best notice came in 1972, when General Mohammad Oufkir was assassinated during an attempted coup against King Hassan in Morocco; it was rumoured, to Luttwaks delight, that a blood-spattered transcript of Coup dEtat was found on members of the general corpse.

Luttwak is less a grand political theorist in the tradition of Machiavelli or Hobbes than a skilled bricoleur of historical strategic insights. But he is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as legendary military strategists. Hes a hell of a lot smarter than Clausewitz, says Merrill McPeak, the former chief of staff of the US air force, who sought Luttwaks advice in 1990 while scheming the bombing of Iraq during the first Gulf war.His main asset is just knowing more than everyone else. Other acquaintances are more circumspect. When I think of Ed Luttwak, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter, told me, I think of a strong intellectual, inclined towards categorical assertions, penetrating in many of their insights, but occasionally undermined by the desire to have a shock consequence on listeners. Nonetheless, hes almost always worth listening to.

In a world where almost every national government now stimulates use of strategic consultants, Luttwaks services have only increased in value. The rise of a governing culture that does its best to simulate the best practises of the business world has been of great benefit to his business. The peculiar type of counter-intuition he offers seems to have never been more in demand. His provocative public persona only contributes to the sense, among the many world leaders, military commanders and others who purchase his services, that with Luttwak they are not dealing with a business school graduate tapping into a database, but something better deliciously old-fashioned. Luttwak sweats savoir faire. He projects the image of a wise man in intimate linked with a deeper, hidden level of reality. Listening to Luttwak discuss his clients, one has the impression that he is passed around from government to government like some pleasurable, illicit stimulant.

But what makes Luttwak unusual is the fact that so many powerful people hire him in the first place. What does a 72 -year-old Romanian emigre in the Washington suburbs provide that they cannot get elsewhere?

***

Outside Luttwaks house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, stands a tall metal statue of the would-be Hitler assassin Claus von Stauffenberg; a large wooden totem of Nietzsche gazes out from a bay window. When I visited this spring, a helmeted figure appeared to be assembling something with industrial welding equipment through a basement window. The figure was Luttwaks elegant spouse, Dalya, who greeted me at the door while Luttwak finished shearing the bushes outside. I do sometimes worry that when I consider a vehicle moving slowly outside the house that someone has finally come to finish us off, she said. Dalya was preparing for a show in New York City, and the floor of her sculpture studio was strewn with tools and the steel rods she shapes into giant root-like structures.

Luttwak first came to Washington in 1969. After graduating from LSE, he followed his roommate Richard Perle the neoconservative eminence grise and consultant to Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, known in the press as the Prince of Darkness to work for a cold war thinktank called the Committee to Preserve a Prudence Defense Policy. Chaired by the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson, the committee was dedicated to wrapping rabid strategic proposals in the language of security and necessity. Luttwak now observes Washington to be a agreeably innocuous township, but he detested it when he first arrived: I recollect going to Kissingers favourite restaurant, Sans Souci, and eating food that would have been rejected by Italian PoWs.

Luttwak could never fully bend to the orthodoxies of the Beltway. He has a way of thinking outside of the box, but its so far outside of the box that you have to put a filter on it, says Paul Wolfowitz, another Iraq war architect who was also a member of Achesons committee. If you had asked Edward if he would have liked to be secretary of state, he would not have said no, says Perle, but he didnt want to rise as a bureaucrat. He wanted access to power without going to go ladders. Luttwaks relations with both men have cooled in recent decades. In Washington you are considered frivolous if you write volumes, he said. Wolfowitz and Perle were always supposed to be writing these great works, but they never did. I was deemed unserious for knowing things.

Today, Luttwaks home office contains the better part of the Loeb classical library on its shelves, interspersed ostentatiously with helmets, pistols and stray pieces of cannon. A certificate congratulating him for his contribution to the design of the Israeli Merkava tank rests above a photo of his daughter, a former Israeli soldier, driving the same tank. Luttwak expends much of his time at the computer. He follows the news closely and construes it as an ongoing comedy. At the time of my visit, Yemens Houthi insurgents had just invaded the port city of Aden. Its as if Scottish Highlanders were walking around with firearms in Mayfair, he said.

You know, I never gave George W Bush enough credit for what hes done in the Middle East, Luttwak continued. I failed to appreciate at the time that he was a strategic genius far beyond Bismarck. He ignited a religion war between Shiites and Sunnis that will occupy the region for the next 1,000 years. It was a pure stroke of magnificence!

Luttwak at home in Maryland in front of some of the books he has written and translated. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino for the Guardian

Luttwak is square-jawed and has a close crew cut of grey hair. He is in remarkably good shape for a man in his 70 s, which he attributes to a new sugarless diet. He has a mild, Mitteleuropean accent, which he supplements with a wide repertoire of gestures that call to mind the movements of an embattled crab: the fey flick of the index finger, the four-fingered pinch-of-salt jab, the fist-grenade that periodically explodes at chest level to punctuate a point.

He is the sort of man who is not satisfied with simply making an impression; he wants to mark his listener for life. As we strolled through the house, he pulled 15 th-century Byzantine-bound manuscripts, which he treats like paperbacks, from the shelves. He started to simmer every time Dalya took the reins of the conversation. She started out so promisingly, he said as we reviewed her statues. I gratified her when she was a 19 -year-old Israeli prison guard, and shes the best driver of a Jeep I know. Next to the sculptures was a giant welding machine. Its illegal to have that in a residential area, he said.

After we entered its term of office, Luttwak became momentarily assimilated by a YouTube video of a gaur, the largest bovine on ground. A young Yorkshire filmmaker appeared in the side of the frame. Its a wild Indian gaur, he madly whispered into the camera, Every now and then it looks at me But if I get any closer he might get genuinely riled so Im going to be very careful.

Luttwak jabbed childishly at the screen, emitting his standard derisive guttural Ah! Ah! Ah! and pointed to his desktop background, a picture of himself feeding and petting an enormous gaur in the Indian nation of Nagaland. I have an acute those who are interested in bovines, he said with an impish smile. He went back to typing on his computer, pecking sharply at the keyboard. For a few moments, I guessed I could see a handgun strap through his T-shirt, but it turned out to be the white braces that Luttwak always wears. I was born without a bottom, he explained, a bit mournfully.

***

The cow is the most complex machine on Earth, Luttwak told me when I gratified him one morning in February, at El Trompillo airport in Santa Cruz, the largest and wealthiest city in Bolivia. It converts cellulose into bone, meat and hoof. My cows are closer to gazelles. You will see how they leap and jump. We are not like American farmers. We dont give them medications and the alfalfa that attains them sick in order to get marbled meat. And we dont kill them early. Indians worship cows because of the route they congregate at the edge of the river in the evening. It is an undeniably mystical thing and it constructs sense to venerate it.

Luttwak first set his sights on Bolivia in 1998, where reference is convinced three wealthy partners that a recently signed South American free-trade agreement would induce Bolivian land on the Brazilian border as valuable as that of its richer neighbour. Together they bought 19,000 hectares in a north-eastern province known as the Beni. Luttwak went on to buy cattles to graze the land. He now owns a herd of 3,000.

An expert who can explain the ballistic capabilities of a Tomahawk missile to a prime minister is one thing; but a human who can also debate bull-rearing techniques with a hardened Bolivian cowboys in natural latex ponchos is something else. The combining of scholarly prowess and machismo is a much sought-after alloy in many high offices of the world, where extreme masculinity is still the coin of the realm.( In moments that threaten to be dull, Luttwak makes a habit of looking around for lethal objects. This chopstick is perfect, for instance, he told me afterward at a hotel restaurant. But you must remember to thrust it deep enough into the eye socket so that it punctures the frontal cortex .)

Edward Luttwak with Bolivian cowboys garmented in their natural latex ponchos. Photograph: Thomas Meaney

The Beni is a obstinately defiant place of dense jungle and lowland plains that make it vulnerable to severe flooding. You cant do anything without peril in the Beni, said Luttwak as we waited to committee the hour-long turbo-prop flight north to the regional capital of Trinidad, the first stop on our style to Luttwaks farm. The people are the true macho. Not the fake macho of Argentina and Texas. A spouse in the Beni thinks nothing of knocking a jaguar out with a frying pan. A human will casually mention that he lost a finger that morning, but no bother. There are also several thousand Mennonite farmers in the Beni descendents of German-speaking anabaptists exiled from Russia whose antiquated farming techniques and innovator grit Luttwak particularly admires.

In the Beni, politics belongs to the narco traffickers who work the border with Brazil, the new urban business class of the cities, and the cattlemen of the plains. It was one of the most powerful of these cattlemen, Winston Rodriguez Araya, that Luttwak had come to see. The previous year, Don Winston, as Luttwak calls him, lost hundreds of cattle to flooding, and had made arrangements to rent Luttwaks herd to replenish his own. But a misunderstanding had arisen. Don Winston had delayed returning the animals to Luttwak. Luttwak was coming to get his kine back.

After landing in Trinidad, we drove six hours further north, deeper into the Amazon basin, to San Joaquin, the closest township to Luttwaks farm. There were matters requiring immediate attention when we arrived. News of the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo had violated when Luttwak landed in Bolivia, and the last TV reports we had assured had included grainy footage of the gunmen. It was done with AK-4 7s, which are very hard to get a hold of in Paris, Luttwak kept insisting during the course of its long drive, though we knew almost nothing about the two attacks. In Poland you can get new AK-4 7s complete with the little petroleum canister for $800, but they are nearly impossible to get in Paris. These people have connections.

Luttwak wanted to write a piece about the future of Muslims in Europe. True to form, he wanted to infuriate liberals with the argument that western leaders, with their fairytale collegiate position of Islam, were in fact betraying the hard-working parents from the Countries of the middle east and Africa who had immigrated to the US and Europe in order to save their children from Islam. But there was no internet in town. We drove to the local military outpost. Luttwak entered the headquarters of the freshly stationed commandant and introduced himself. There was no internet. The colonel has pointed out that in the Beni the army largely concerns itself with protecting people from inundations. The problem is of course predicting when the floods will happen, he said. If you had the internet, replied Luttwak, that might be less of a problem.

The soldier at the checkpoint of the camp asked about the white letters on Luttwaks blue cap. He was wearing a NYPD cap in solidarity, he said, with US police after the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I would really enjoy wearing this on a saunter through Manhattan, he told me. The great idiocy of the Michael Brown trial was that they announced the verdict late at night, which was praying for riots. They should have announced it early the next morning when they could have been more prepared.

Later that day, after an exchange of greets and gifts at the home of Luttwaks trusted friends and business partners Don and Donna Mandy, local ranchers who live in a red adobe Jesuit house off San Joaquins main square, Luttwak and I huddled into their bedroom, where the Paris attacks followed reports on local political corruption and the weather as the fourth item on the Bolivian nightly news. Armed with these findings, Luttwak retired to the dining table, and wrote his dispatch in less than two hours.( When we reconnected to the internet 3 days later, he sent off the article. A few days after that, it appeared on the home page of Le Monde .)

Donna Mandy then prepared a dinner of paku fish and maize cakes, followed by a round of the Bolivian spirit singani, which Luttwak scarcely touched. Sitting at the table, he examined the medical instructions that came withthe growth hormone tablets that Don Mandys son, Alex Martinez, had set aside for his two teen daughters( they were healthy, but he wanted them to be taller ). Stretching out the tiny newspaper of medical instructions like an accordion, Luttwak promptly reached a verdict. Alex, you cannot give these medications to the girls. The opportunity of cancer is too great. The effects of the growth protein is just too risky. This was Luttwaks specialism on display: the sudden flex of expertise, the pinpoint detail lanced across the room.

There is a passage in his 2009 book The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire where Luttwak proves off this skill to the extreme. He digresses for 14 pages about the special weapon use across ancient central Asia called the composite-reflex bow which he believes unlocks one of the mysteries of Homers Odyssey. When Odysseus returns home to Ithaca to kill the suitors who have designs on his wife, he shoots them with a bow that none of them have been able to use out of what would appear to be a lack of strength. But Luttwak identifies it as a composite reflex prow that Odysseus presumably picked up on his foreign travelings, and which merely he knows how to string properly 😛 TAGEND

The Ithaca provincials had tried to string the prow with brute strength, by forcing it to curve enough to receive the string easy to do if one has at least three hands, two to pull back the limb into position, one to tie or loop the string on each ear but impossible to do with only two. Odysseus knew how to string reflex bows such as his own.

Translate this kind of scholarly detail into other areas Indian national security, the Argentinian air force, Iraqi ground targets and you can see the source of appeal in receiving a memoranda from Luttwak. If Luttwak had been present at the crucifixion of Christ, he would have begun his report with a note on the type of fingernails that were used. He brings literary flourish to fields that would seem the most resistant to them. The performance is partly contained in the rhetoric: in order to understand the Odyssey, you cannot going to see museums, or consult academic commentaries, or trust your own judgment instead you must go to Luttwak.

Luttwaks idiosyncratic historical work often commands respect from academic experts. Edward transgressed open a new academic field about the Roman frontier, the eminent classicist GW Bowersock told me, referring to Luttwaks book The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, which began life as his Johns Hopkins political science dissertation. What makes him a great intellectual is that his practical work and his scholarship constantly nourish each other. Bowersock is right, but there is an additional element. If there is one thing that separates Luttwak from other writers on strategy it is not only his ability to move between typically disconnected realm, but also his route of flattering the customer: he can make a head of state feel like an intellectual, the academic feel like a man of action, and the Bolivian rancher that they are in the presence of a man with terrifyingly powerful connections.

Luttwak has written 14 other volumes, ranging from analyses of American capitalism to the Israeli Army. Kazakhstan: An Alphabetic Guide is coming from the notes for a recent consultancy project for the country will appear as soon as it is cleared by Kazakhstani censors. Another study, tentatively entitled The Marriage of Genghis Khan and Anna Karenina about the route vast distances have determined Russian forms of regulation is currently under way. Luttwak is perhaps even better known for his journalistic insurgencies. For Prospect magazine, he once was contended that the Middle East had no strategic importance and its backward societies should be ignored; in the New York Times, he advised savouring the onset of war in Syria, since Americas sworn adversaries were fighting each other.

Luttwak with some of the 3,000 cattle he owns in Bolivia. Photo: Thomas Meaney

The morning after our dinner at Don and Donna Mandys, we drove out to Luttwaks farm for a cattle roundup. Into two giant troughs, we dumped bags of salt that summoned the herd. These are Indian kine the Portuguese brought them here from Goa, said Luttwak, as the cows approached. They are not stupid. They instinctively sense that eventually we want to kill them. Dozens of livestock were now in a circle around Luttwak. He was elated. He massaged their heads, he whispered to them, but just as quickly he seemed to grow borne with them, as if disappointed that they had nothing to say.

***

Luttwaks earliest memory is of being carried, aged three, on the shoulders of a Red Army soldier who was billeted at his parents villa in the region of Romania known as the Banat, where his father was a prominent merchant. Though the Banat was close to the epicentre of the second world war, it was never directly occupied by the Germans. Luttwak grew up speaking Romanian, Vlach and French, but his mother tongue, as was common among the Jewish population of the region, was German. He remembers his parents as courageous: They were the sort of people who, if they watched water they liked, dove in without checking the depth.

Yet it was the Russians , not the Germans, who posed the greater threat to the Luttwaks as the war came to a close. As a businessman with capital, Luttwaks father stood to lose everything. The family shipped itself south in Luttwak& Co box cars and boarded one of the last ferries to Sicily, where Luttwaks parent entered the orange export business, and successfully warded off the local mafia.

After Sicily, the Luttwaks moved to Milan, where Edward was miserable and got into fights at school. The magical childhood in Palermo had been abruptly replaced by adolescence in a city that celebrated stolidly efficient industrialists. There was nowhere to play. The parks were a disgrace. I lost all my friends from Palermo. I received myself amid a bunch of very bourgeois kids, Luttwak told me. His mothers decided to send him away to a Jewish boarding school, Carmel College, in Oxfordshire.( Luttwak got into fights at Carmel too, but the English had a different position toward opposing; they not only tolerated it, but respected you if you held your own .)

In 1957, at persons under the age of 15, he quitted school, temporarily cut off contacts with his mothers, and endeavoured to London, where he worked in a teashop in Piccadilly and enlisted in the Honourable Artillery Company, a territory regiment quartered in London. Luttwak claims to have first insured military action in 1958, as 16 -year-old in the jungles of North Borneo, where a small British force was sent in a clandestine operation to prop up the native Dayaks against Chinese socialists. But then, according to Luttwak, the world would be a most varied place without him: he claims a significant hand in a large proportion of the most momentous events of the postwar epoch: from the decision to fling molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks in the Prague Spring, to Irans 1981 release of American captives, to the existence of the Toyota Prius.

Luttwaks talent for mythomania relies on his sensual craving for detail, but it also gestures towards something beyond it. He tirelessly buffs the edges of his own legend; he is competitively interesting. When confronted by anyone who threatens to second-guess him, Luttwak answers either by burying them in a welter of technological detail, or crushing them with timeless, prophetic generalities. The outcome is that he is nearly invincible in dialogue. Everything he has ever read or heard is ready for rapid deployment.

Luttwaks antagonisms, charms, and provocations are also a style for him to ward off his greatest anxiety: boredom. During the eight days I expend with him, in moments where nothing was happening, or when the focus of a conversation momentarily deserted him, Luttwak appeared almost in pain. But his war on boredom is more than a personal crusade. His mortal foes are anyone wishing to rationalise the world, who want to attain militaries and states and intelligence agencies run like industries. This sets him at odds with many of the American conservatives who have, over the years, been his chief patrons in the form of thinktanks and military contractors. I believe that one ought to have only as much market efficiency as one wants, Luttwak once said. Because everything that we value in human life is within the realm of inefficiency love, household, attachment, community, culture, old habits, comfy old shoes.

The Luttwak family in Palermo when Edward was a small child Photograph: Edward Luttwak

For Luttwak, capitalism is synonymous with boring adulthood: ledgers, marginal returns and the expectation that the world will fundamentally remain the same. As a strategist, Luttwak insures the presumption of predictability as a damning vulnerability. As a historian of the ancient world, he is too alive to the prospect of civilisational wrecking to set any religion in the idea that capitalism contains its own solution. Now that he is rich, making money for Luttwak has become a kind of pastime, and raising kine is his attempt to make it in the least dreary, most archaic style possible. More and more it seemed we had come to the Amazon to provide Luttwak with another chance to raise a thirst, and it was understood that I was there to experience an endangered sanctuary based on values such as accolade and daring, in which Luttwak prowled around as a Homeric hero. Take as many images as is practicable, he repeatedly told me. Note everything down.

***

On our third day in the Amazon, we drove out to check on the kine that Luttwak had lent to Don Winston. There were traces of Don Winstons empire dairies, cattles, tenant farms along the road for miles before we arrived at the ranch. The man has more land than Belgium, Luttwak said. His elaborate descriptions of Don Winstons past exploits as a local kingpin had the effect, presumably intended, of building me somewhat wary of meeting him.

Cowboys were rounding up the herd as we pulled up to the estate. Outside a white McMansion in a field of bright green, encircled by corrals, Don Winston ambled into vision: black slab of hair flattened back, obligatory moustache, shirt unbuttoned almost all the way in the Beni style, disclosing a generous triangle of cured flesh.

Luttwaks negotiations with Don Winston started around a small kitchen table with Nescafes and farm milk. They sat at opposite objectives of the room, surrounded by members of Don Winstons household. Crossbeams of sweat rapidly is available on everyones backs. Their opening statements were stage-whispered through cupped hands, as if they were loudly passing on secret information.

Eduardo we would like a bit more time for the cattle.

I want them today.

We lost many in inundating and the cold shiverings last year, and we can give you calves right now.

Not the pregnant kine?

We would like to amend the contract again, said Don Winstons son, Pito.

Luttwak made an elaborate pout of disappointment and stood up and left the room, apparently to take a self-guided tour of the house. Together we walked to the veranda through Don Winstons bedroom. Luttwak took a picture off the wall. It was an old photo of Don Winston riding a horse, and below it were a series of exclamations: Heroism! Honor! Perseverance!

Don Winston, this is a wonderful picture of you riding!

Thank you, Eduardo!

Don Winston, I will be forced to steal your wife if you dont return my cattles by tomorrow !, Luttwak said with theatrical menace.

We will try, Eduardo, said Don Winston, with theatrical penitence.

It was hard to tell how much of this performance was for my benefit, why Luttwak seriously required the cows now, and what the effect of walking around Don Winstons house had been. But something had registered. It was agreed that the cattles would be returned in a week. We moved back to the veranda in less tense spirits.

We had reached the denouement. Luttwak mock-threatened to steal Don Winstons spouse once more. We exited the room. Outside the house, Luttwak pointed out a Mitsubishi Triton pick-up truck parked outside, which he cited as evidence of the companys fresh gains in Bolivia. A brief discussion about the merits of the Triton followed. Everyone started petting the truck. Luttwak said he would inform the board of Toyota about this unexpected menace to their business in South America.

I dont particularly like serving states, Luttwak told me over dinner in the main square of Trinidad two days later. I opt peoples and clans to states. But after 9/11, I wanted to do something again for America. That possibility did not originate. Instead, Luttwak continued, I got a call from Nicolo Pollari the former head of Italys military intelligence agency. He said, Edward, I know what were doing but I want you to do what were not doing. According to Luttwak, the Swiss government had helped money an Italian security operation to keep al-Qaida spies from entering western Europe. And the Italians wanted Luttwaks help.

Luttwak told me that he began by identifying the main entry points for al-Qaida members coming to Europe. In each of these locations, he put into action a carefully tailored plan. To deal with the spies coming into Sicily by boat, Luttwak conducted town-hall-style sessions in cinemas near the harbours. Accompanied by his closest friend from childhood, the legislator Calogero Mannino, Luttwak arranged a series of sessions with barge skippers, in which he explained they would not get into any kind of trouble neither with the mafia nor the governmental forces for following his instructions. I told the ship captains that they would have to turn everyone in[ who seemed suspicious ]. I said, Youll know who they are because they will be young men, they wont have trouble paying, and theyll be less flea-bitten than the others. As part of his work for the Italians, Luttwak also claims to have conducted operations in Trieste and the Austrian city of Klagenfurt. In the Italian port city of Bari, Luttwak says his work included helping the police fight off the local mafia, who were helping Albanian smugglers deliver rafts that included al-Qaida operatives onto the countrys shores.

Luttwak enlisted another old friend, a intellectual of Arabic at the Catholic University in Milan, to conduct the interrogations of the captured suspects. She could tell the accents of the men, search out the obvious lies, and decide their true origins, he said. No one was tortured, Luttwak reassured me several times. Instead we devoted them speeches: Were going to take you out of solitary and put you in the main prison. You know Italian prisoners were very moved by September 11. Some of them wept while watching the towers go down. So theyre going to rape you several times before they kill you. Luttwak claims his intelligence operation was spectacularly successful. The Italians are frivolous about many things, he told me, but not about counter-terrorism.

***

A couple of days later, we began the long return journey. The flight back to Santa Cruz was rocky. The problem is that the pilots dont use radios with one another so you never quite know when youre going to get crashed into by another plane, said Luttwak, with his impish smile. On the flight he carefully paged through two back issues of the Times Literary Supplement, which he carries with him everywhere( he determines the London Review of Books is too bulky ). Why is Warnie Lewis the much maligned brother of CS Lewis? he asked me in the middle of some turbulence. Why much-maligned?

From Santa Cruz, Luttwak was flying to Zurich, where he has a regular chore advising the local police and a firm he did not wishes to make public. In the passport line, I received him standing with a Swiss man employed in the fast-food business. This man works in an industry that has yet to have its Nuremberg trials, Luttwak proclaimed. The Swiss man smiled weakly. Hes a chicken nugget consultant! If theres one point on which I agree with the leftist doormats, its 1) that McDonalds must go and 2) that American citizens should be forced en masse to take a course in phenomenology, so that they can develop the proper philosophical disposition necessary for understanding the incarnate evil of the chicken nugget. The Swiss man was flustered, trying to calculate to what degree he had just been insulted.

Most people live such pointless lives, said Luttwak as we walked toward his gate. Not desperate lives they have cable television but pointless. For politicians, its not pointless, but it always ends in disappointment and bitterness. But meaningful? Their lives are not as meaningful as the Mennonites. The Mennonites are free in the Hegelian sense they are self-consciously free. And they have unintentionally revealed the ongoing scam of American agriculture. They dont destroy the land, they dont narcotic animals to demise they attain vast earnings using 18 th-century technology. Personally, I cannot live that life, but I want it to flourish. I pertain with Ulysses because I demand an interesting life. I demand it. And with that, Luttwak boarded his flight.

***

In April, two months after his trips to Bolivia and Switzerland and a stopover in Asia to help design a new intelligence agency for an Asian country that he insisted I refer to only as the Asian country whenever we were in public, Luttwak drove to New York to help prepare for his wifes art opening at a gallery in Chelsea. Don Winston still owed him eight mules, and Luttwak was in negotiations with a Mennonite colony in the Beni to sell a large chunk of his land. I fulfilled him at a small television studio on West 30 th Street, where he was appearing on the popular Italian political talk depict Servizio Pubblico. Luttwak sat in a black room at a small table in a dark gray suit, as a young woman applied makeup and a technician wired him up.

The segment was devoted to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Four days earlier, another migrant barge had sunk off the coast of Libya, killing approximately 800 asylum seekers. The commentators on the display spoke about how it was a terrible tragedy and how Italy needed to do more. Luttwaks eyebrows raised in a mute appeal for compassion from this do-gooding nonsense. “Thats what” makes Italian leftists so vulnerable, he said to the room in New York between live segments. English or French leftists would come on with coherent arguments and rebuttals prepared. But in Italy everyone simply wants to be considered buonista morally pure so theyre only easy to quash. Ive said before that the Italians must destroy the boats before people board them on the Libya coast. You attach limpet ours to the hulls. The Renzi government is taking up my idea.

Afterwards, as we strolled to Dalyas opening, I asked Luttwak once more why he was interested in strategy. You seemed borne in there, I said. Isnt it tiring to spend your day turning conventions on their head?

No, said Luttwak, strategy is about go looking for turning point. Politics is too predictable. Seem at Hillary. She is an empty carapace with aspiration rattling inside. You can predict everything she does. Strategy is about being unpredictable.

But doesnt that unpredictability become predictable? I asked. What happens when every army in the world abides by strategic logic?

But they never will, said Luttwak, because most people cannot master their feelings. Above all, strategy is about mastering your emotions. And the emotions of others, he might have added. For all of this commitment to the cement, Luttwak sells something highly abstract: a sort of self-realisation that dedicates his clients the fleeting sense that they, and relevant agencies under their command, have achieved mastery not only of their emotions, but of the vicissitudes of their historic moment. Like psychoanalysts who identify meaningful patterns in their patients idle chatter, Luttwak insures glaring chances for strategic mastery in the dullest bureaucratic reports and inventories.

In my time with Luttwak, it became clear that he didnt simply represent his own notions, he overfilled them; his provocations and factual barrages were the spiders web he wrapped around his helpless listeners. But even his exaggerations the categorical affirmations that ruffle the likes of Brzezinski and Wolfowitz contained something beyond strategic value: they advanced the sense that Luttwak was more daring than they were; that others have traded excitement for power, that they have traded the machete for the desk, whereas Luttwak has maintained hold of both in a world that would not appears to tolerate such people, much less build them rich.

We were nearly at the gallery. Luttwak stopped to tie the laces of his black sneakers on a fire hydrant. If I were starting out again now I would be a biologist, he said. I would be a student of bacteria. Every second there is an Iliad unfolding in our bowels. The variables are infinite compared to strategy or politics.

When we reached the gallery, Dalya and Luttwak espoused. The room filled with more than 60 people. Family and friends and some art dealers arrived. Luttwak walked in circles around the room, providing a working commentary on the assembled guests. This mans father was a graduate of the gulag and taught me everything about forgery, said Luttwak of one. But he never came to anything.

Stories and lore flowed electrically around Luttwak, but for the moment he was defying the current. He was on good behaviour. Tonight was about his wife. An old Israeli friend sidled up to him. How are you holding up, Edward?

Ill be fine until peace breaks out.

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here .

This article was amended on 9 December. An earlier version of the piece referred to a credential congratulating Edward Luttwak for his contribution to the design of the Israeli M-4 7 tank. The tank in question was, in fact, the Merkava.

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