Not the First Time Luttwak Gets His Factual Premises All Wrong

Clark Hoyt, the public editor, or ombudsman, of the New York Times, went after Edward Luttwak in his weekly column today for the military historian’s controversial May 12 op-ed on why Sen. Obama would be considered an “apostate” by many Muslims and thus particularly susceptible to assassination attempts if, as president, he were to go on a state visit to a Muslim nation. After consulting with five Islamic scholars at U.S. universities on whether Luttwak’s argument was consistent with Islamic law, Hoyt concluded that Luttwak’s assertions were essentially baseless and “extreme” and strongly implied that the op-ed should not have been published at all. (The headline of Hoyt’s essay was “Entitled to Their Opinions, Yes. But Their Facts?”) Hoyt also took to task the op-ed editor, David Shipley, for publishing only letters to the editor in response to the original op-ed and not providing space for a full rebuttal.

This is not the first time that Luttwak, who has long gloried in his role as an unconventional policy provocateur (usually, but not always, on behalf of hawkish, if not neo-conservative, forces in Washington), has written attention-grabbing op-eds that are based on no factual evidence of any kind. I haven’t compiled them in any systematic way, but one example some 20 years ago really stands out as a warning to all op-ed editors at elite newspapers that Luttwak was not the most careful of researchers.

On November 22, 1987, Luttwak published an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled “A Member of Moscow’s Exclusive Club” which argued that the fact that then-Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was seated next to East German leader Erich Honecker and Polish President Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski “in the section reserved for the leaders of Leninist governments in good standing” at the opening of the Communist Party Congress in Moscow conveyed a “very definite message: the Sandinista regime has been admitted to the very exclusive club of governments that the Soviet Union regards as permanent, organic allies.” [emphasis in original] The conclusion:

“If there were any suspicion that the Sandinistas might actually allow the democratization required by the Arias peace plan, creating the possibility of a peaceful change of government by free elections, Ortega would not have been seated where he was.”

Within the op-ed space, the Post reprinted the AP photo cropped in a way that only Ortega’s face was visible.

There was only one problem with both the photo and Luttwak’s analysis (aside from the fact that the Sandinistas did indeed accede to a peaceful change of government by free elections under the Arias plan): Ortega was not seated next to Honecker and Jaruzelski. What Luttwak had thought was one photo of the three leaders seated together that had appeared in the Times and other newspapers on November 3 was actually two distinct photos separated by a thin white line: one of Honecker and Jaruzelski seated next to each other, the other of Ortega and a man whom the Times later identified as Gus Hall. In fact, the latter two were seated in an entirely different section of the hall, as was indicated by the entirely different angles of Ortega’s face (presumably fixed on Gorbachev at the podium) and those of Honecker and Jaruzelski.

Luttwak, in other words, had based his entire analysis (and he was very close to senior Reagan administration officials, such as then-Undersecretary for Policy Fred Ikle and Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams) at the time –that the Soviet Union now considered Nicaragua as as integral a part of its empire as Poland and East Germany — on a total visual misapprehension.

“Am I the only person who has seen the photographs published in all our newspapers,” he asked. “Americans are still furiously debating the nature of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and its intent in regard to the Arias peace plan, but surely that question has been settled conclusively by the photos that appeared on Nov. 3, the day after the opening of the Party Congress in Moscow.”

Despite several letters to the editor (including one from me sent the day of the op-ed’s publication) pointing out the obvious error, the Post never issued a correction or an explanation. (After all, in order to crop Ortega’s photo to incorporate it into Luttwak’s op-ed, the newspaper’s editors should have known that the factual premise on which his analysis was based was completely faulty.) So It fell to a Post columnist, the late and great Phil Geyelin, to write his own op-ed in rebuttal one week after Luttwak’s article came out. In reply to Luttwak’s question whether he was the only person who had seen the “telltale photographs,” Geyelin wrote:

“No, Edward, you are not the only one; but you may be the only one who failed to notice that the photographic display in The New York Times actually consisted of two photographs, one of Honecker and Jaruzelski seated side by side, and another of Ortega alone. There was white space between the two shots and nothing in the caption to suggest that the three men were even in the same room.

“Nor was there, according to authorities I’ve talked to, a special section ‘reserved’ for ‘Leninist governments.’ True, the communist countries of Eastern Europe were lumped together. But Ortega was no closer to them than he was to a mixed gaggle of Socialist leaders, including representatives of India’s ruling National Congress, the Italian Communist Party, and the PLO’s Yasser Arafat. So much for the ‘political precision’ of Soviet seating arrangements or the claim that ”the nature” of the Sandinistas, or their intentions, has been ’settled conclusively.’

So, the next time you see an analysis by Edward Luttwak, be sure to scrutinize the factual premises very carefully. That goes especially for editors and talk-show producers.

Visit for the latest news analysis and commentary from Inter Press News Service’s Washington bureau chief Jim Lobe.

Author: Jim Lobe

Visit for the latest news analysis and commentary from Inter Press News Service's Washington bureau chief Jim Lobe.

39 thoughts on “Not the First Time Luttwak Gets His Factual Premises All Wrong”

  1. He is not alone in this regard!Many columnists,reporters,and talkshow hosts relay heavily on information from two sources,SITE and Memri.

    1. New Qaeda release expected from No. 2 Zawahri

      The statement was produced by al Qaeda’s media arm, as-Sahab, and an announcement of its impending release was posted to Islamist Web forums, the SITE Intelligence Group said. Monitor IntelCenter said the audio-video release was expected within 72 hours.

  2. Mr. Obama had a Muslim father and as far as they are concerned that makes him Muslim and since he was baptized into the Christian faith they condiser him an apostate. I’m curious, why is it that some are so quick to defend the Islamic faith but more than willing to lambaste the Jewish and/or Chirstian faiths? So what are the facts? What does Islam do with apostates? Let’s go right to some of their sources, shall we?

    Quran,Sura 4:89 – “They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing: But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah. But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them”

    Sura, 9:73 “O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell,- an evil refuge indeed. ”

    And from the Hadith:
    Bukhari (52:260) – “…The Prophet said, ‘If somebody discards his religion, kill him.’ ”

    Bukhari (84:57) – “‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'”

    1. Is there no end to your litany of logical fallacies? One’s religion is not transmitted via one’s bloodline, so “your concern” is little more than an inferential leap from a non-sequitur. You then, as always, veer off into the wild blue yonders of (imaginary) comparative apolegetics. There is a distinction between defending the Muslim faith as a philosophical weltanschaaung and defending its adherents against the sort of aspersions you so promiscuously cast upon them, one which you are, from all appearances, unable to grasp. In this case, it consists of noting that there is no causal relationship between Islam and terrorism, and using passages in the Bible and Talmud of comparable depravity to illustrate the absurdity of explaining worldly behaviour through holy texts. No one here has lambasted the Christian or Jewish faith as such; distasteful passages have been adduced to show the absurdity of your logocentrism. With respect to the issue of Obama, there isn’t the slightest shred of evidence to indicate that he was ever Muslim at any point in his life, so your entire excursus is moot.

    2. Your quotations, even if accurate, do not show either (a) that he is considered Muslim by birth and therefore an apostate deserving of death, or (b) that significant numbers of Muslims actively and literally endorse this harsh interpretation of their religious duty, i.e., that they ought to kill people like Obama.

      Look, dear: the Jewish bible, in what Christians call the ‘old testament’, calls for adulterers to be STONED TO DEATH.

      Does anyone believe that Jews (or Christians, whose Jesus says that every “jot and tiddle” of old testament is still valid as law) by some inmost nefarious nature really believe that, simply because the text says so?

      It takes more than textual quotations to support the demonization you advocate.

      1. Eric, quick point: I have said it before and it seems to go in one ear and out the other. Yes, the Old Testament called for some horribly outrageous things–and I make no excuses for those things. But Jews and Christians have PROGRESSED. When was the last time you ever heard of a Jew or a Christian advocating that someone be stoned to death? On the other hand, if you go to the websites of amnesty international or human rights watch you can see for yourself that Muslims still do these sorts of barbaric things, even to this VERY DAY.

        And one last note: As per stoning Jesus said “he who is without sin, let him caste out the first stone.” To imply that Jesus would advocate stoning anyone to death is unrealistic to say the least.

        1. You unwittingly make my point. Quoting the Koran does NOTHING to substantiate your claims about Muslims, just as quoting similarly offensive stuff from the bible would do NOTHING to substantiate similar claims about adherents of the biblical faiths.

          Sorry you didn’t do very well. But thanks for playing.

        2. Tim R, we have an administration that not only condoned torture, but insisted on it. Our military tribunals are admitting as evidence confessions obtained through torture. Many detainees have died during interrogation, and please don’t answer with the bullshit that they’re all terrorists and deserve it. It’s well documented that the vast majority of original Guantanamo detainees were completely innocent and were simply rounded up in Pakistan or elsewhere and sold to US authorities. Many have already been released; in some cases there’s documentary evidence that they were never at a training camp or anywhere near any fighting. All were uniformly tortured. Many Americans actually support the torture and renditions.

          In 2001, when Northern Alliance commanders wanted to accept conditional surrender of Taliban troops in order to save the lives of their own and Taliban fighters, US advisors insisted they demand unconditional surrender instead. The Muslim Afghans negotiated anyway and saved thousands of lives.

          Yet you claim Western moral superiority over Muslims?

    3. So you know more than the 5 leading Islamic scholars that Lobe consulted? Give us your academic resume, please!

      Lester Ness, PhD (History), Miami University, 1990

  3. Your quotes, even if accurate, do not show (a) that real-life Muslims actually believe that Obama was *born* a Muslim and therefore – even though raised from the cradle as a Christian – is an apostate in the same sense as an adult who converts, nor do they show (b) that real-life Muslims actually believe it their duty to kill a person so judged.

    Look, what Christians call the Old Testament (which is still officially law for both the Christian and Judaic religions) states that adulterers are to be STONED TO DEATH. Does anyone surmise from this that adherents of these faiths, by some inmost nefarious book-bred nature, actually actively feel it their religious duty to do such things?

  4. Untraceable e-mails spread Obama rumor

    ..”the disgraceful and racist premise behind the entire “Muslim smear”: that being Muslim is de facto a source of shame. Obama’s supporters often say they are being “Swiftboated,” casually accepting the idea that being accused of Muslimhood is tantamount to being accused of treason.

    Substitute another faith or ethnicity, and you’d expect a very different response. Consider a report from the archives of this magazine. Thirteen years ago, Daniel Singer, The Nation’s late, much-missed Europe correspondent, went to Poland to cover a hotly contested presidential election. He reported that the race had descended into an ugly debate over whether one of the candidates, Aleksander Kwasniewski, was a closet Jew. The press claimed his mother had been buried in a Jewish cemetery (she was still alive), and a popular TV show aired a skit featuring the Christian candidate dressed as a Hasidic Jew. “What perturbed me,” Singer wryly observed, “was that Kwasniewski’s lawyers threatened to sue for slander rather than press for an indictment under the law condemning racist propaganda.”

      1. You’re probably right, and isn’t it amazing that he’s considered a “threat”?

        I mean, he fell all over himself to endorse Isarel’s vicious 2006 assault on Lebanon, he’s signed on to the imaginary “Iranian threat”, and every day he gets more abject in his groveling to the Israel lobby – but he’s still considered a “threat” because, well, he isn’t *quite* as full-throated in his constant praise of Israel as the other two candidates, and he *did* have a Muslim father, and he *did* spend time growing up in Indonesia, where he may have developed some dangerous notions, like maybe the idea that Muslims are PEOPLE or something…

        1. Aye. Those opposed to the Empire should take note of this- American politics has ventured so far down the path of fascism that even the most tepid criticism of imperialism, particularly its Israeli permutation, within the normal framework of verifiably false ideological assumptions- nay, any indication that the other side might have legitimate concerns- is not tolerated. I am quite sure this augurs something decidedly more sinister than a mere occlusion of dissent…

  5. Shame that CSPAN is not covering the proceedings of the AIPAC convention this week in Washington. Would help for some Americans to see with their own eyes their elected officials grovel before a group that puts a foreign country’s welfare ahead of our own. At least, a major media outlet could do a real public service and put together a montage of the most servile comments from people like McCain, Obama, Pelosi, etc. The fact that neither of these are going to happen, underlines the extent of AIPAC’s control.
    I believe that this crap will not go on forever, for surely, this whole country cannot be that stupid or craven.

    1. The fear of being labeled “anti-Semitic” is an unbelievably powerful weapon in America. Far more than any amount of so-called “Jewish money”, this is THE source of the lobby’s power.

      It’s very simple. There are two components to this system of thought control, and they consist of two simple premises which have been drilled into the American psyche:

      (1) Being an anti-Semite is the very worst thing you can be. If you are branded an anti-Semite, your life — politically, professionally, socially, economically – is over. You are radioactive.

      (2) “The Jews” – actually, the ever more rabidly right-wing elites who control the “major Jewish organizations” – get to define “anti-Semite” as they wish.

      This is all they have needed to bring America to its knees and to ruin America in pursuit of a radical agenda for Israel’s benefit that is not even supported by most Jews.

      1. Eric,

        You make some very important points. I am a Jew and yet I do feel that the term “anti-semetic” is sometimes over used. Just because someone disagrees very strongly with the policies of the Israeli government that certainly does not make them an anti-semite. For example, take Jimmy Carter. While I strongly disagree with him on many issues and feel that he is naive, unrealistic, lives in a fairy tale world where we all sit around and hold hands, and worst of all promotes the appeasement of Islamic terrorism; nevertheless with all that being said he is most certainly NOT an anti-semite. He is a decent, gentle, caring, man with good intentions, however misguided they might be.

        So yes, let’s stop throwing around the term anti-semite so easily. Let it be reserved for truly exceptional cases. And while we are at it how about we stop being so quick to throw around the term “racist” or “Islamophobic.” Just because one believes that radical Islam is a dangerous religion that does not mean he hates all Muslims. Just because one believes that the millions of Mexicans invading our souther border is a clear threat to our country that also does not make him a racist. Just because someone believes that marriage should be between one man and one woman, that does not mean he is “homophobic” and hates gays. In short, lets cool it with all these terms. This type of political correctness discourages the free and fair exchange of ideas and makes people afraid to speak their mind.

        1. Tim R, you do not just believe that “radical Islam” is dangerous. In your past posts you have labeled all Islamic society as backward. You paint with a broad brush indeed. Yet you seem not to care a whit about elements of Christian or Western society that are every bit as barbaric as what you claim is endemic to the Muslim world. You are indeed an Islamophobe.

    2. Actually, my local ABC “news” did lead its broadcast this morning with clips of Obama and Clinton pledging allegiance to Israel at the AIPAC convention. After that it was a boy killed in a hit-and-run, a goat boarding a bus…

      The Big O and Billary were VERY servile to Israel, basically promising an attack on Iran, which means we’re all f*cked.

      The point being that when the local news feels it’s SO important to stress that both Obama and Clinton are supporters of Israel, we yet again get confirmation that Zionists control “our” media.

      1. How did this happen? I have read everything I can find, and I still can’t figure it out. There’s no disputing that they DO control our media. But really, exactly, how did it happen? It’s astonishing. It’s like gravity used to be before a theory was worked out. Everywhere you see its effects, but what IS it, and how does it work?

        1. “How did this happen?”

          I dunno. Maybe you should ask Charles Lindberg’s ghost. It’s not like this phenomena is at all new. It’s been impossible to ask certain questions in public since Lindberg was made “radioactive” by the mass media for drawing attention to certain facts we are not allowed to talk about. Everything since that defining event has been mere postscript or aftermath, the inevitable unfolding of the logic of said event.

        2. “The first-known uses of the terms “Judeo-Christian” and ‘Judeo-Christianity’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are 1899 and 1910 respectively….”


          Track that down thoroughly, think about it, and you have part of the answer. One might also want to uncover the first uses of “Anti-Semitic”.

          But again that is just part of the story.

          As for the Born Again contribution, from Reagan onward, the history of Prohibition.

          Leo Strauss and the old Trotskyites who transformed into “Neo-Conservatives” are the another piece of the puzzle.

  6. “But Jews and Christians have PROGRESSED”.When did what you called progress start?and how is it manifested besides abandoning religious laws?

  7. Zionist control of the media is not “tin-foil lined hat” conspiracy stuff. If a person goes to any major media blog and tries to post anything that is rational in its criticism of Israel, chances are very good that it just won’t appear. Today, I tried to post on an ABC web for a story about (Sen) Clinton vouching for Obama to AIPAC. All kinds of crazy messages were getting posted – most of them only remarkable for their ignorance and stridency in hating Obama or Clinton. My attempted posting described my disappointment with Obama’s weakness in sacrificing his indepence for AIPAC approval. For my efforts, I got back a notice that I was trying to post a potentionally offensive message and it was to be reviewed. It hasn’t gotten posted and probably never will. This is not new for me. I have tried writing letters-to-the-editor to several West Virginia and Virginia newspapers regarding our disastrous alliance with Israel. I get calls from the editor’s desks asking if I personally wrote those letters. There is always a promise to print as soon as space becomes available but that never happens. Meanwhile other latters dealing with such trivial topics as football coachs, gay marriage etc. fill the space available. How did this country get hung out to dry so easily?

    1. Oh yes, ABC’s comments board is very heavily policed. Remember that the key to this is not only that “anti-Semitic” messages are disallowed, but that Israel’s thought police (such as the ADL’s Abe Foxman) have decreed that even claiming that there IS an “Israel lobby” is *inherently* anti-Semitic.

      1. I read those comments after the ABC article on Hillary telling Aipac that Obama would be good for Israel and noticed, like Richard, that just about none were actually about Aipac.

        They all seemed to be vicious comments about either Hillary or Obama, bordering on racism or sexism, but not about the really heinous fact that both candidates needed to pledge fealty to Israel.

        I had never really thought about Zionism until after I found out about the Project for the New American Century, but since then I’ve realized that, far from being a conspiracy theory, aggressive Zionism is present in every aspect of our lives, from control of congress and the WH, to the media.

        As Howard Kohr, executive director of Aipac, told the New York Sun in 2003, Aipac considers as one of one of its greatest achievements that it helped convince the U.S. to use force on Iraq.

        And there has been a deliberate attempt to link Christianity and Judaism in the media, while demonizing Islam. What is this about “Judeo-Christian”? All three faiths are based on the same foundation, and Jesus is revered in Islam, I would guess much more than in Judaism.

        Now this might sound “out there” but I was watching Democracy Now yesterday and they did a really balanced hour on Robert F. Kennedy, with both fans and detractors. The show aired footage of LBJ’s speech after Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. In it LBJ talks about extremist factions. Kennedy was shot one year to the day after the start of Israel’s 1967 “Six Day War” — and conveniently enough Sirhan Sirhan was a Palestinian, albeit a Christian. Sorry if this sounds odd, but it clicked in my mind that Johnson was, even then, demonizing Palestinians as extremists.

        John Pilger, the journalist/ documentary filmmaker who was also present when RFK was assassinated, said that after Sirhan was under control, there was still someone firing shots.

        A video of the first interview with Sirhan Sirhan’s brother was shown, and in it the brother said that to this day Sirhan Sirhan claims that he has no memory of the shooting. Now, WIRED magazine just did a funny piece of all the spy technology that the U.S. actually used back in the “Get Smart” days — some of it was pretty sophisticated.

        OK, this is where I go into “conspiracy theory” land (and I was five when RFK was shot so don’t remember much of the hoopla surrounding it) — would it be possible that Sirhan was under some kind of Mossad mind control drug, and that he was the patsy for an attempt by the Mossad to ensure that Palestinians were portrayed in a very unfavorable light?

        It’s not as if Israel has never used false flag operations before or since. It’s not as if Israeli hasbara (propaganda) is not a staple of American life, the entire media is a front for Israel.

        And Israel’s Megaphone program has been unusually active lately, especially on the mainstream media message boards, where a surprising number of posters show support of all things pro-Israel, many “coincidently” hitting the same talking points.

        Anyway, if someone knows more about the RFK assassination and would like to enlighten me as to if I’m way out there, or plausible, I would be grateful.

  8. Riddle me this.

    Apparently, ALL Muslims will do *exactly* everything that is written in the Qur’an. Therefore, as Tim R. stated, they will kill all apostates. However, there are also verses that explicitly states that the freedom of religion must be respected, even if that person converts out of Islam (73:11-13). Since this will be a logical contradiction, therefore Tim R.’s reasoning does not look very strong.

    Also, he is making the assumption that since a minority of Muslims take a very dim view of apostates, therefore ALL Muslims share the same view. With the same logic, since a minority of Christians see abortion to be so evil killing and bombing abortion doctors are justified, therefore ALL Christians are doctor-killing whackjobs. Since a minority of Hindus treat those of the lower castes like dirt, ALL Hindus are that discriminatory. And if the previous two statements are true, I don’t want to live in this world anymore.

    In summary, why is it that the actions of a small, fringe Muslim group is always considered to be representative of the actions of the whole Muslim community?

    1. Amry,

      This sort of faulty sampling is of immense ideological utility. As long as the actions of the Taliban and their cognates can be ascribed to some sort of latent theological idiom scrutiny can be diverted from the machinations of the imperialist countries, at least for a time. Its sudden prevalence in the west is intimately linked to the latter’s undertakings in the Middle East and Central Asia and follows much the same form as colonial racism of ages past. As Mencken so incisively remarked, “The entire aim of practical politics is to keep the population menaced with a series of hobgoblins, almost all of them imaginary”.

    2. Excuse me but did I ever say “ALL” Muslims? Stop twisting my words. You are correct that it is only a minority of Muslims that feel this way. However, I do believe it to be a rather large and substantial minority. Also, as I have said many times before, when you have over a billion Muslims in the world, even a small percentage that are radicalized presents a huge problem.

  9. One needs to look at the identity of who owns/heads each of the networks or newspapers and/or heads the corporations that run them to know why the Americans are not being told the truth about the Israeli connection. My favorite finanial advisor informed me yesterday that both of the political parties are owned by Israel and that that is not good for America. Besides, look at the vicious Israel Firsters who head Homeland Insecurity and the Department of Injustice who can rush you to perpetual prison and torture if you tell the truth about the plan, the design. Look it up.

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