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The Byzantine Doctrine

What the United States could learn from the military and foreign policy of the Byzantine Empire.

12:00 AM, Oct 28, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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The incomparable and irrepressible Edward N. Luttwak has a short article in the November/December issue of Foreign Policy called "Take Me Back to Constantinople: How Byzantium, not Rome, can help preserve Pax Americana." Still one of America's leading strategic minds, Luttwak literally wrote the book on the subject with Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, as well as on the application of strategy to modern day situations (e.g., The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union; The Pentagon and the Art of War; and On the Meaning of Victory).

But one of his most brilliant and influential works dealt with ancient history. In his The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century AD to the Third, Luttwak outlined the patterns of continuity and change in the strategic policies of the Roman Empire from Augustus to Diocletian. Dismissed by classicists who do not understand strategy, and by strategists who are ignorant of ancient history, the book has, nonetheless, shaped all subsequent discussions of Roman foreign policy. Luttwak argues convincingly that, while they may not have written dissertations and white papers on the subject, the ancient Romans had an instinctive grasp of strategic logic embedded in their culture, which allowed not only continuity across changing regimes, but also for strategic evolution in response to a changing security environment. Thus, under the Julio-Claudians, Rome employed a strategy of forward defense, with large field armies capable of offensive action against potential threats, whether Germanic barbarians, nomadic raiders, or the Parthian Empire. In the second century, under the Antonines, Rome switched to a preclusive defense based on fortified frontiers backed up by the legions. Finally, in response to the collapse of the frontier defense in the third century, Rome adopted a defense-in-depth, based on defended towns and cities backed by mobile field armies to counter-attack and repel the invaders. Each strategy was appropriate in its time, and for that reason, Rome managed to survive as an empire down to the fifth century AD--or so the story goes.

Most conventional histories speak of the "Fall of the Roman Empire" in 476, when the last Emperor in the West was deposed by the Gothic warlord Odovacar. Historians are now reassessing that interpretation, for Roman institutions continued to function in the West for at least two more centuries, albeit in increasingly decadent and fragmented forms. But the real truth is, only part of the Roman Empire "fell" in 476--the Empire in the West. In the East, the Roman Empire continued to exist, and even thrive, without interruption. Known to us as the "Byzantine Empire," a term coined during the Enlightenment, it has long been synonymous for decadence, effeminacy, and deviousness--everything the noble, upstanding Romans were not. But the Byzantines actually thought of and called themselves Rhomaioi, or Romans, right down to the final fall of Constantinople in 1453, almost 1000 years after the Roman Empire supposedly "fell".

The traditional stereotype of the Byzantine Empire, established by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has undergone considerable revision of late, thanks to a renaissance of Byzantine studies, to which Edward Luttwak has now made an important contribution. Luttwak had long promised a sequel to Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire covering the Roman Empire in the East from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries, and finally it is here: The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Luttwak's Foreign Policy article provides a foretaste of the book by identifying some of the principles of Byzantine grand strategy and suggesting that these might be more appropriate for the United States in the multi-polar 21st century than the more "Roman" principles applied in the 20th century.

In writing about Byzantine foreign policy, Luttwak's task was made easier because, unlike the Romans, the Byzantines did write manuals of strategy, including such classics as the Strategikon of the 6th century Emperor Maurice, or the 11th century Strategikon of Kekaumenos--the sophistication of which would not be matched until the 19th century works of Clausewitz and Jomini. Consciously aware that they were the bearers and conservators of classical culture, as well as the bastion of the Christian faith, the Byzantines believed they had a sacred obligation to persevere. As Luttwak notes,

The Byzantines, however, wrote it all down -- their techniques of persuasion, intelligence gathering, strategic thinking, tactical doctrines, and operational methods. All of this is laid out clearly in a series of surviving Byzantine military manuals and a major guidebook on statecraft.

Unlike Rome in its heyday, the Byzantine Empire was relatively impoverished, and lacked the overwhelming materiel and manpower advantage possessed by Rome. Byzantium's enemies were numerous, highly diverse, and present on all sides, whether Goths on its northern and western borders, or the Huns coming in from the steppes, or the Persians from Mesopotamia, or later, the Muslims out of Arabia, the Turks out of Central Asia, and the Normans out of Sicily. After the Muslim Conquests of the Near East, Egypt and North Africa in the 7th century, Byzantium lost its richest provinces, was even more heavily outnumbered, and had to deal with new enemies such as the Slavs and Bulgars, who overran the Balkan Peninsular. Yet, by the 8th century, Byzantium was on the rebound, systematically defeating and regaining much of its lost territory while simultaneously becoming the intellectual and commercial center of the early medieval world (Byzantium maintained the only stable gold currency of the time, the solidus, which was the universal medium of exchange from Persia to Britain; the word "sterling", as in "pound sterling", is an abbreviation of "Easterling", i.e., Byzantine). By 1025, at the death of the Emperor Basil II "the Bulgar Slayer", the Byzantine Empire was the most wealthy and powerful state in the world.

It got there not by opposing force against force, the classic "Roman" strategic approach, but through stealth, guile, propaganda, bribery and deception. With a relatively small but highly trained and professional army (generally recruited from the hard mountain tribes of Isauria or Anatolia; foreign mercenaries did not become a significant element in Byzantine armies until the 11th-12th centuries), Byzantine military power was potent but fragile. Capable of sophisticated combined arms tactics, even a small Byzantine force could defeat several times its numbers in barbarians or steppe warriors, but a single major defeat could result in losses that would take years to replace. Hence, the Byzantines generally avoided stand-up fights and adopted what Luttwak, back in the 1980s, called "relational-maneuver warfare"--adopting tactics and operational methods that emphasized Byzantine strengths (organization, professionalism, political unity) against enemy weaknesses (fragmented command, tribal divisions, lack of training, etc.). In his FP article, Luttwak lays out seven principles of Byzantine strategy which he believes would be applicable to the United States in its present strategic situation. They are worth repeating here:

I. Avoid war by every possible means, in all possible circumstances, but always act as if war might start at any time. Train intensively and be ready for battle at all times . . . The highest purpose of combat readiness is to reduce the probability of having to fight.

II. Gather intelligence on the enemy and his mentality, and monitor his actions continuously. Efforts to do so by all possible means might not be very productive, but they are seldom wasted.

III. Campaign vigorously, both offensively and defensively, but avoid battles, especially large-scale battles, except in very favorable circumstances. . . employ force in the smallest possible doses to help persuade the persuadable and harm those not yet amenable to persuasion.

IV. Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with maneuver warfare . . . [T]he object is not to destroy your enemies, because they can become tomorrow's allies. A multiplicity of enemies can be less of a threat than just one, so long as they can be persuaded to attack one another.

V. Strive to end wars successfully by recruiting allies to change the balance of power. Diplomacy is even more important during war than peace . . . The most useful allies are those nearest to the enemy.

VI. Subversion is the cheapest path to victory. So cheap, in fact, as compared with the costs and risks of battle, that it must always be attempted, even with the most seemingly irreconcilable enemies.

VII. When diplomacy and subversion are not enough and fighting is unavoidable, use methods and tactics that exploit enemy weaknesses, avoid consuming combat forces, and patiently whittle down the enemy's strength. This might require much time. But there is no urgency because as soon as one enemy is no more, another will surely take his place. All is constantly changing as rulers and nations rise and fall. Only the empire is eternal -- if, that is, it does not exhaust itself.

There is much here to consider, particularly as a lot of this advice runs contrary to the American character, or at the least, has not been considered particularly important by the United States. For instance, in peacetime, the military training budget is usually the first thing cut, so that our forces lose their edge and must spend the beginning of every conflict getting it back. Our recent adversaries, such as Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, were foolish to give us the luxury of time in which to build up and train our forces. And, of course, they were not exactly tactically proficient themselves, which tended to mask a lot of U.S. shortcomings. Our shortchanging of intelligence has become only too evident since September 11, 2001: eight years after the attacks, our ability to penetrate the organizations and counsels of our enemy remains limited, our understanding of his mentality and objectives imperfect at best. Our military strategy is still focused on decisive battle, though some of our military leaders such as David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, are making the transition to a more Byzantine (in the best sense of the word) approach to dealing with low intensity threats. But we still act as though there is a dichotomy between war fighting and diplomacy, so that if we are engaged in the one we cannot pursue the other, and vice versa. As Luttwak writes, "Reject, as the Byzantines did, the foolish aphorism that when the guns speak, diplomats fall silent."

One of Luttwak's key points is the use of subversion as the cheapest path to victory. Our adversaries understand this implicitly, because, lacking military and economic power, they can only defeat the United States through subversion; i.e., undermining our political will to continue the fight. But the United States seems to think subversion is unseemly, "interfering in the internal affairs of other countries", as though fighting their forces in the field was not. Luttwak points out that even religious fanatics can bribed "because zealots can be quite creative in inventing religious justifications for betraying their own cause ('since the ultimate victory of Islam is inevitable anyway ')", yet we seem loathe to try this (though we had fewer qualms in the early days of the Cold War, when we shamelessly bought reporters, politicians and academics across Europe to shore up wobbly members of the NATO Alliance).

So, how would we actually apply these principles in our ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of the global war against Islamism? Luttwak does not give any examples, but let us look briefly at the situation in Iran--which, ironically, considers itself the successor to the Persians, one of the Byzantine Empire's most implacable enemies. The Iranian regime is vocally antipathetic to the United States and its interests; it is providing material support to insurgents in Iraq and terrorists in Afghanistan; it engages in world-wide terrorism itself; and it is intent on developing nuclear weapons. So far our attempts to defeat or at least neutralize Iran have consisted of toothless economic sanctions, a porous embargo of military technologies, and pathetic attempts at diplomatic "engagement." The only alternative being suggested is a military strike to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, which might delay but cannot remove the day of that reckoning.

So, what would the Emperor Maurice do in this situation? Undoubtedly the first thing he would do is collect the best possible intelligence on Iran, its rulers, its society, its military and its economy, using all available sources, including spies, merchants, scholars, and traitors within. Having built up a reasonably accurate picture of the adversary and his potential weaknesses, Maurice would see that the government is becoming isolated from the people, and relies increasingly on oppression to maintain its position. Rather than recognizing the legitimacy of the recent Iranian elections--widely regarded as farcical by the Iranian people, if not by our State Department--he would begin funneling support to opposition political groups, highlighting human rights abuses by the Iranian government to undermine its international support, and destroying its moral authority (such as it is). He would observe Iran has many disgruntled ethnic minorities, many of which have violent militant groups, such as the Baluchi separatists who recently killed seven Iranian Revolutionary Guard leaders in a suicide bombing attack (the biter bit!). Maurice would delicately reach out to these groups, subverting their leadership (putting all of them on the Byzantine payroll), providing them with training and equipment (untraceable, of course) and then letting them loose on the Iranian government. Imagine what would happen in Iran if not just Baluchis, but half a dozen other insurgent groups suddenly began staging attacks, day in and day out. But Maurice would also maintain a tight leash on his attack hounds, and through diplomatic channels would make it known that the attacks could be stopped in return for concessions. And, just to make sure his overtures would be well received, Maurice would buy key members of the Iranian government and religious councils (but of course, the United States does not engage in bribery, any more than it engages in assassination).

This can pay long-term dividends, since once an enemy official takes your money you have a hold on him for life. Finally, there must always be the iron fist in the velvet glove, so Maurice would carefully plan for a limited military strike in the event all other means fail. But he would not aim to invade and occupy the whole country, recognizing that he did not have the wherewithal to do so, and that such a war would tie down too many resources and make him vulnerable to attack from other quarters. So, he would limit his objectives to a raid to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, to cripple the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and maybe, if the situation warrants, to cut out enclaves along Iran's borders to serve as havens for Iran's dissident minority groups--a constant threat to Iran should it lapse into bad behavior in the future.

Could the United States actually do something like this? Probably not with its present leadership and institutions. But, considering the limited alternatives we have now, it might be worth considering how we could develop the capability to do so.