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!