The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.