March 6, 2010
What the Byzantines Can Teach Us about Our National SecurityBy Ishmael Jones
Civilization in the city of Rome was extinguished by the year 476, but scholars today recognize that the Roman Empire continued to thrive in its eastern capital of Constantinople, in what we call the Byzantine Empire. As Edward Luttwak notes, the Byzantines did not use the word "Byzantine." They called themselves Romans, and their enemies called them Romans as well. The Byzantine Empire carried on Roman traditions of civilization, commerce, law, and education for nearly a thousand years until they met a heroic end in the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
In his fascinating book, the product of 25 years of research, Edward Luttwak describes the Grand Strategy that allowed the Byzantine civilization to survive so long against many of history's fiercest enemies. A partial list of Byzantine enemies includes successive waves of Huns, Avars, and Mongols from the steppe; Slavs and Viking Russians from the north; Persians and Arab and Turkic Muslims from the east and south; and "light-haired peoples": Franks, Goths, and Lombards from the west.
Although Byzantium was an extension of the Roman Empire, their grand strategies were significantly different. The Byzantines realized that they could not annihilate enemies as the Romans had done, because to destroy an enemy exhausted Byzantine forces and opened the way for the next wave of invaders. As we have learned with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the destruction of a single enemy does not mean the end of all enemies. "The genius of Byzantine grand strategy was to turn the very multiplicity of enemies to advantage, by employing diplomacy, deception, payoffs, and religious conversion to induce them to fight one another instead of fighting the empire," Luttwak writes.
Like the Byzantines, Americans do not wish to fight war by attrition. The supply of young jihadis, for example, is potentially unlimited. They are too numerous and easily replaced. On our side, we have no expendable soldiers. We have much in common with the Byzantines -- they were among the earliest to question war as a valid human undertaking, as we do today.
We need knowledge and strategy to defeat our enemies, and an essential element is good intelligence work. Of particular interest is Luttwak's analysis of Byzantine intelligence and its methods, which can be used to improve our own intelligence work and thus protect our own great civilization.
Luttwak describes the way Byzantine spies were escorted to the frontiers by scouting parties. The spies then made their way to foreign capitals, often as merchants, in what we would call "commercial cover" today. The spies lived and worked within enemy territory. By using messengers, they were able to communicate information back to Constantinople and to remain in place in foreign countries, continuing to collect information.
Having spies living and working within enemy territory is essential. We don't do this now -- more than 90% of our CIA officers live and work entirely within the United States, and most of the remainder are within U.S. embassies. There is a general understanding among intelligence officers and within the Senate and House intelligence committees that we need to move more of our officers to foreign assignments, outside of embassies. Indeed, more than $3 billion was spent after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to get more CIA officers overseas in commercial covers, but the endeavor has so far proven impossible. No such additional, effective officers have been assigned overseas.
To survive like the Byzantines, we need to get our spies into foreign countries. The entire focus of Byzantine espionage was outward, placing spies at the sources of information in foreign lands.
The Byzantines had no fixed network of diplomatic missions, largely because the long distances between capitals made fixed posts impractical. The job of a diplomat in Byzantium was perilous because travel to a foreign warlord's capital meant a long journey through dangerous territory. A round trip to China took three years. Byzantine spies were adventurers, sent to bring back the needed information, not to sit behind desks. The Byzantines were fortunate not to have embassy installations. With our system today, those officers we do send to foreign countries usually serve within fortified embassy compounds, which inhibits their access to intelligence. Byzantine intelligence deployed almost all of its people in foreign countries and outside embassies; American intelligence deploys almost none of its people in this way.
The Byzantines had good spies, but no intelligence bureaucracy at all. Officials involved in the management of espionage performed these functions along with other duties. They never had a bureaucratic hierarchy of intelligence and never thought to create one. In America, we've had an intelligence bureaucracy only since the CIA's creation in 1947. We need spies, but we don't need an intelligence bureaucracy.
(The Byzantines had bureaucrats, of course, just not in intelligence. The taxes levied on the population to support government were heavy. Luttwak points out that an advantage the Muslims had in their conquest of North Africa and the Levant was that they had no bureaucrats to support back in their austere capitals of Mecca and Medina. Thus their tax demands were lower than the Byzantines'. Surrendering to the Muslims often meant, at least initially, a lower tax burden.)
The Byzantines' intelligence work was excellent. They didn't shy away from subverting even the most devout Muslims. If the domination of Islam is inevitable, reasoned some of their recruited sources, then what does it matter if I provide intelligence to the Byzantines? The Byzantines had a can-do attitude and knew what a little gold could do to subvert even the most outwardly ideological opponents. We need that can-do attitude in the CIA. Often, the biggest obstacle to our CIA officers' approaches to potential sources is that CIA Headquarters blocks the approach, saying it can't be done. Yet throughout my career, I was always pleasantly surprised at how quickly a few bucks converted ideologues to our cause.
The Byzantines were skilled in the use of subversion. A Byzantine technique while raiding enemy territory was to refrain from burning or plundering the estates of certain prominent men, and of them alone, to arouse suspicion and discord.
The Byzantines were expert at dividing their enemies and encouraging simmering ethnic divisions. The steppe tribes, such as the Huns, began in central Asia as small tribes and grew through ethnogenesis, a process of conquering and then absorbing other cultures, so that their military force at its height was composed of many ethnic groups. Subversion can cause a reversal of this process by splitting these enemies back into their parts, awakening ethnic tensions with the help of bribery, alliances, and persuasion.
The Byzantines used Christianity to convert and create allies. We create allies through conversion to our democracy and the ideals of our Constitution. The Byzantines used icons and the splendor of Constantinople; we have the vitality of our economy, the splendor of our cities, and the promise of opportunity. The Byzantines' manipulation of the craving of foreign chieftains for titles and flattering and giving gifts to foreign targets are something we understand -- these things are in our intelligence manuals, too -- but we just need to get out and do them.
The Byzantines may have hated their enemies, but they sought to understand them and to learn their languages. Indeed, the early history of many cultures, such as the Bulgarians, Croats, Czechs, Moravians, Hungarians, and Serbs, is known to us only through Byzantine texts. The Byzantine manual Strategikon of Maurikios shows this intense interest in understanding other cultures. Its descriptions are often appropriate today; the Western light-haired peoples are "bold and undaunted in battle. Daring and impetuous as they are, they consider any timidity and even a short retreat as a disgrace." These are qualities, as Luttwak points out, that give strength, but also tactical limitations. The Strategikon describes the Persians as a people who obey their rulers out of fear. Its comments on the hardiness of Russian warriors sound like a description of 20th-century Russian soldiers. Luttwak observes that powerful nations often disdain the study of their perceived inferiors, leading to events such as Napoleon's underestimation of the Tsar's army of serfs and drunken officers in 1812.
We need to develop this intense interest in the cultures and languages of our adversaries. Most of the CIA people involved in the pursuit of bin Laden prior to 9/11 had no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture and no interest in learning. CIA employees are smart and talented, but advancement is achieved largely through relationships formed with colleagues within U.S. government buildings. English is the only language necessary. Anyone who had gone out to foreign lands to hunt bin Laden would have returned years later, unknown to anyone at Headquarters and unpromotable.
A later Byzantine manual, the Strategikon of Kekaumenos, likely written at a time of catastrophic decline in the empire, offers advice that I find chillingly familiar: that a general should avoid blame for being either too timid or too audacious and conduct minor operations that only appear to be risky in order to build the his reputation without actually taking much risk. This manual's advice suggests the empire's fate is less important than the individual's personal success. The tone of this manual must certainly reflect a gloomy period of decline and decay in the empire's history. It reminds me of the kind of advice senior CIA officers give their trusted protégés today: Look busy, but take no risk. Look at any CIA operation in the press, from the Joe Wilson visit to Niger to the Abu Omar rendition, and ask yourself: Was this operation simply designed to look busy, without taking any real risk?
Edward Luttwak shows the understanding of a practical military tactician and strategist in his exploration of cavalry tactics, the adaptation of the Huns' mounted archery, the compound reflex bow (which was held together by animal bone glues and powered by dried tendons), the impact of intensive military training, and the importance of speed, deception, and maneuver.
The use of "Byzantine" as an adjective, referring to dysfunctional bureaucratic scheming, will surely change as people realize that the Byzantines in fact were highly effective. I will no longer use the word to describe our broken intelligence bureaucracy because the Byzantines gathered intelligence brilliantly.
Americans have a superb military. Colleagues of mine from my early days in the Marine Corps, men who are today generals and colonels, read Luttwak's books. American strategic weakness is not to be found in its military, but in its intelligence bureaucracy, and it is in this component of grand strategy that I find Luttwak's scholarship essential.
Ishmael Jones, a former Marine officer and a former deep cover CIA officer, is the author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture.