Edward Luttwak Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Strategy: Conversation with Edward Luttwak, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University; by Harry Kreisler, March 10, 1987

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If we take this subfield of strategy in democracies and try to relate it to America's present crisis with regard to "Iran-gate," the diversion of funds, the whole set of affairs recently examined by the Tower Commission, what is a strategist's analysis, broadly, of that set of problems?

I happen to think that it was a wrong thing to do in every possible way. It was also executed very poorly even if it had been a right thing to do, which it wasn't. But please recognize that there were some unconscious elements of strategy here. First of all, common sense tells you that you should sit down with your friends and that you should develop cooperation with your friends. Now with strategy, the people you should negotiate with to get the highest leverage, of course, are your most fierce opponents. In this sense, with the United States and Iran having terrible relations, it did make sense to try to develop diplomacy with Iran. The next step would have been for the United States (not the government, the Americans involved), to give the Iranians brochures and descriptions of all the wonderful weapons they could have in the war against Iraq if they returned all hostages. "You return all hostages, and then we'll give you [what's in] the brochures. You promise not to do this and that, and then we will talk about possibly giving you weapons. But of course, we're giving you these weapons to protect Iran against a Soviet invasion. If you're going to use them against the Iraqis and continue to, etc., etc."

In other words, the starting point was that unconsciously they blundered into the track of strategy, but left it immediately because they applied the logic of common sense. Oliver North and company fell into the classic error of American negotiators which is to try and build a cooperative relationship. That's what we keep doing. We've had exceptions and there have been different cases, but the American negotiators meet the Soviet negotiators and they try to find a common framework. They refuse to accept the harsh and cruel reality that this is an adversarial relationship and they try to form a common consensus and get to it. Then, when there is a difference in positions, the natural tendency is to go halfway. In other words, to apply these highly ritualized modes of cooperative relationship to the strategic relationship. And even though Colonel North and these others portray themselves as tough guys, as opposed to the striped-pants cookie-pushers in the State Department, it's interesting to me. Sometimes it's said that they were suckered into the same kind of phoney cooperative relationship with the Iranians and they were simply cheated by "rug merchants." But if they had not been cheated, they still would have failed in this negotiation.

Reading [between] the lines of the Tower Commission [report], one gets a sense that there was, in the National Security staff, a sense of frustration with getting the bureaucracy to do things that they wanted to do. This also would seem to go against your ideal type of the strategic realm and what in fact leaders in democratic societies can do. The CIA may not want to undertake this initiative, or the Pentagon may not want to implement the president's plan. Do you think that was partly at the heart of this crisis?

Partly. It played a role. There is no doubt that, before we find junior officers in the NSC going off with their enterprising consultants and dubious intermediaries and operations, there's a history there. The National Security Council is supposed to be advisory. It's supposed to be a staff of nice people who sit in offices and make memos. How they got involved into negotiating, let alone into shipping weapons, operating aircraft, and so on -- well, it didn't happen suddenly. And it didn't happen only because they were trying to circumvent the will of Congress, and did it operationally because that was the only way they could cheat, as it were. It all started much more innocently than that in reaction, frustrated reaction, to the fact that the departments of government which are supposed to be operational and in the field, and do special operations -- the commandos and so on in the Pentagon, and the CIA's paramilitary people -- were very unwilling to do anything.

The National Security Council would tell the Pentagon, "We've received intelligence that we have two hostages that might be rescued," and the Pentagon, instead of putting commandos aboard aircraft and sending them to Beirut to pull the fellow out if they could, would say, "Well, we need more intelligence, we need to do a feasibility study, we need ...." In other words, the operational people kept behaving as if they were analysts and advisors and refused to get into the field. And what happened was that people in the National Security Council did it themselves. They just decided to use whatever funds they could get ahold of and use these outsiders to organize it. At one point North controlled, or believed he controlled, forty Druze mercenaries in Beirut, and he was going to use them to rescue hostage. Now, this desperate resort to improvised operational capabilities in the field reached an extreme [but] really began years ago. In fact, it began under the Carter administration in reaction to the fact that, in order to avoid bureaucratic risk, the people who were supposed to be in the field just wouldn't do it.

So, at the heart of all of this, isn't it the problem of intervention? Democracies, well this particular democracy, the United States, is unwilling to intervene when it needs to. I'm looking now at the whole background of the debate about Contra aid. The president wants to do this, he feels it fits into his strategy, he winds up, instead of dealing with what he perceives to be the adversary but rather dealing with his adversaries in Congress. So, it seems that at the heart of all of this is the inability to realize the strategic logic that you've been talking about in a democracy that has gone through the throes of Vietnam and is very ambivalent. On the one hand, it wants to protect our interests where they seem to be threatened, but on the other hand it doesn't want to pay the cost.

Well, the logic of strategy, strictly speaking, has nothing to say on this subject, because what you find at the tactical level, the operational level, is in turn government at the level of grand strategy. What governs it is political choice. If you decide that you want to surrender, there is a strategic way of doing that, too. The logic of strategy never can override the political choice. Indeed, the political choice tells you what is it, that great thing, that you wish to achieve. The logic of strategy enables you to achieve things in conflict. If you apply that logic to non-conflict situations, it fails absolutely, just the same as common sense, civilian logic, normal logic, linear logic, fails in the realm of conflict.

You have to know what you're trying to achieve, and only political decisions can set that. Whether the political choice is made by a dictator, by a traditional emperor, by a madman who happens to have seized office, or by democratic choice with proper parliamentary means, [with] Congress and so on, it makes no difference. The political goal tells you what you're trying to apply the strategy for.

So, strictly speaking, the answer is no to everything. But aside from the logic that is followed, there is a question of the cultural predisposition. This is a very violent society, the United States, which is evolving toward a less [violent society]. We seem to accept violence everywhere, except on the battlefield. We're willing to tolerate much more violence in our cities than the Japanese or the Europeans. The Japanese, who are absolutely uninvolved in international violence -- they wouldn't dream of fighting wars in Korea or Vietnam -- don't accept violence in the streets of Tokyo, Hence they have many more policemen than we have, and the police have much wider powers than the American police force. The Japanese are perfectly willing to allow their police force to break bones of people to prevent violence. Again, in most of Europe, people pay for many more police and give them much wider powers. If they see people they don't like, they can move them on. If these people answer back, they break bones, and if they go to court, the court finds always the police are right.

In this country, we don't want to spend money for police forces, we don't give them the powers to be effective, and we accept a lot of violence in our streets. But, internationally, we are willing to accept less and less. Three Americans are kidnapped in Lebanon and killed; we think that's a terrible tragedy. If the question about dealing with Central America may involve that hundreds of Americans will die, we consider that an impossibility. We can't invade Nicaragua, there'll be a guerrilla war and there we'll have hundreds of people killed, and so on. We accept hundreds of people killed in our streets. It's a cultural and peculiar moment of transition from a once violent and activist society. We're in the sort of middle of that.

Are we unable to make these large political choices that strategy is dependent on? One has the sense, going back to this Iran-gate matter, that part of what may have been in the mind of the implementors of these actions was their inability to get a definitive political decision about our policy in Central America. And then, when the decision was finally made half-heartedly, that is, during the period when there was to be no aid to the Contras, there was a feeling that the president and his men would go around that decision. So, there's a fuzziness throughout this whole episode about what we had decided or not decided.

You're quite right, but let me assure you that I never see the logic of strategy as inducing, as requiring circumvention of the will of Congress, breaking the law, acting in unconstitutional ways. None of that is necessary. We have mechanisms to take care of that. For example, civilian activity requires promotion, advertising, information, everybody being coordinated; and strategy requires secrecy. Now, can we keep perfect secrecy? No. Is a democratic system conducive to that, with a free press? No. But, can we provide tolerable secrecy, enough secrecy so we can do something? The answer is yes. Does it require violating the Constitution, by-passing Congress, leaving it in the dark? No: we have the mechanism of the Congressional Intelligence Committee.

What you are referring to is actually a mixture of two different factors. On the one hand, wanting to circumvent the will of Congress, behaving in unconstitutional ways, fighting for the sake of democracy overseas while compromising the workings of democracy at home. This was [one] element in Iran-gate. The other element was the element we discussed: the bureaucratic frustration. Staffers, advisors, analysts being frustrated because out there, all those rough and tough guys who are suppose to be in the field, aren't. Not because they're cowards, but because their bosses are cowards, bureaucratically speaking. They won't send them.

The third, yes, the third element was frustration at the refusal to take a clear decision, particularly in regard to Iran. We had a pattern of intelligence coming in, as we all know because it was in the papers as well, saying that Khomeini was going to die at any time. Ha ha. He may be around to the year 2000. As you know, his father died at the age of 103, he has a brother who's 11 years older who's alive and doing well. Perhaps he should sell his diet book. At any rate, they were afraid that Khomeini would die, then there would be chaos. Then the Soviet Union would come in and help its supporters, and then (in quotes), "we would lose Iran" -- ha!

Now, as it happens, none of this information was correct. But, the important thing is that the government did accept it as correct and, at that point, before the National Security Council started all these dealings which have come a cropper, its first move was just trying to get a policy paper agreed by the State Department and Defense Department about what to do. And they could not get agreement on that. That is, they could not get the clear choice, which you need to make the logic of strategy into action.

Dr. Luttwak, I regret to say our time is up. Thank you very much for this very fascinating tour of the realm of strategy. And thank YOU very much for joining us today.

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