If one is going to go after sacred cows, one should really go after sacred cows. Most of the people in our society who get credit for "going after sacred cows" are just going after unfashionable ones. At least ones that are unfashionable in the circles they want to appeal to. We live in a world of iconodules posing as iconoclasts.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

On Asymmetric Warfare: Byzantine Grand Strategy in the 11th and 21st Centuries

This follows my first and second posts in this series, as well as other related posts.

As is obvious by my web-name, it's no state secret that I'm into the Eastern Roman (aka "Byzantine") Empire. Back when I was a Freshman in Uni I read Edward Luttwak's excellent Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, a work I highly recommend. Well he has completed the obvious sequel, a book on the Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

In Foreign Policy he has an article recommending the essential features of this strategy to the United States. I would argue that we already follow most of them, including a pernicious corruption of them that the Byzantines themselves engaged in during the 11th Century.

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 -- but do not be eager to fight. The highest purpose of combat readiness is to reduce the probability of having to fight.
America has, critics to the contrary notwithstanding, typically followed this, including in the latest war, where, as many have noted, they "were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them", and even in the "rush to war" against Iraq that took a decade.
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.
I shall elide over this a bit for the time being, because it is clearly one area where one might say we fall short of the highest standards. However, I will note that we do better than are given credit for, including in the current conflict where we must be right all the time in our counterterrorism efforts to foil attacks against us, while one intelligence failure on this front can lead to catastrophic results and the pointy finger of blame being directed at poor intelligence, flawed analysis of intelligence we did have, failure to recognize the value of intelligence or what it meant, and the like. But the Byzantines also had such failures: Just ask Nicephoros I or Manuel Komnenos. Nothing human is perfect.
III. Campaign vigorously, both offensively and defensively, but avoid battles, especially large-scale battles, except in very favorable circumstances. Don't think like the Romans, who viewed persuasion as just an adjunct to force. Instead, employ force in the smallest possible doses to help persuade the persuadable and harm those not yet amenable to persuasion.
Again I would say that by and large and for the most part, the invidious Powell Doctrine to the contrary notwithstanding, we do this. Sometimes to excess: Witness the initial attempt at a small footprint in Afghanistan. Arguably that was a good strategy, however, depending upon what ones goals in Afghanistan are. If they are simply to defeat our foes and keep them on the run, than this, in conjunction with the use of native forces as allies and proxies, is enough. If our goal is to build a strong democratic state there, then it is insufficient.
IV. Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with maneuver warfare -- lightning strikes and offensive raids to disrupt enemies, followed by rapid withdrawals. The 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.
Iraq is the one recent counter-example to this that people may point to. Afghanistan is becoming a counter-example in part because of the limitations of lightning-strike warfare. This is not to say that such strikes are always a failure, but they are not a panacea either. Note that in Iraq itself, pre-surge, this was the operational method that was preferred: Minimize American presence in the cities and neighborhoods, and conduct strikes from basecamps instead. The Surge meant occupying more areas to produce security.
V. Strive to end wars successfully by recruiting allies to change the balance of power. Diplomacy is even more important during war than peace. Reject, as the Byzantines did, the foolish aphorism that when the guns speak, diplomats fall silent. The most useful allies are those nearest to the enemy, for they know how best to fight his forces.
This is done more quite often. The same people who will on the one hand criticize American "militarism" will often on the other hand condemn our "proxy-wars". I'll note that in Afghanistan we recruited local forces from the outset, and neighboring countries. I'll also note that in my tour in Iraq, I got the chance to work for a couple weeks with a SF Team that was responsible for training the ISOFOR. During that time, Iraqi recruits were subjected to a psychological screening conducted by military psychologists from friendly Arab country bordering Iraq (I'll leave it to the reader to guess which one): So even there, more allies were recruited to help than is generally known.
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. Remember: Even religious fanatics can be bribed, as the Byzantines were some of the first to discover, because zealots can be quite creative in inventing religious justifications for betraying their own cause ("since the ultimate victory of Islam is inevitable anyway …").
This is done more often than we're given credit for, and indeed when critics of American foreign policy note it, it is to condemn any efforts to subvert or suborn enemies from within. I will note that we largely won the Cold War in Eastern Europe, however, in no small part through the use of such tactics, and that to the extent to which there was a period when Saddam was "friendly" with America, it was during a spell when we were employing this strategem against both Iran and Iraq and the Soviets.
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.
Here also we have invested quite a bit of effort and creativity into just that over the last three or four decades.

But I want to turn the rest of my post on this to what could be called the Dark Side of Byzantine Strategy, an internal conflict that burst into the open in the 11th Century to the ultimate detriment of the Eastern Roman Empire, and again at the dawn of the 13th. Proxy forces can be waged against external enemies, but those engaged in internal political squabbles may consciously or unconsciously tempted tengage in warfare by proxy against their opponents, to humiliate, weaken, and discredit them in the struggle for political dominance.

After the death of Basil II Makedonion, the already existing tensions between Byzantium's "Civil" and its "military" elites flared up, worstening throughout the next five decades. The American counterparts of this are the Blue State "Georgetownist" Transnational Progressives and the Red State "Arlingtonist" nationalists. In Byzantium this conflict included the elimination of opponents from positions of influence even if (ultimately, especially if) they were competent, diverting funding (for example, Constantine IX Monomachus' demobilization of the forces of the Dukate of Armenia, at the time when Turkish raids were starting), sabotaging military campaigns (the most obvious being the withdrawal of half the army at Manzikurt, leaving Romanus III Diogenes to be defeated), and ultimately paying Turkish proxy forces to fight against each other in civil wars during the 1070s, even as the Turks conquered Anatolia.

One hundred years later, the son of a deposed Emperor recruited Crusaders to help place his father (or him) back on the throne, resulting instead in the conquest of the capital by said Crusaders and untold destruction.

Are we at that stage yet? Clearly not. Our current situation resembles the 1040s more than the 1070s, much less 1200s. But all the elements are in place, including a ruling class that is tougher with domestic opponents than with foreign enemies, always ready to advocate extending understanding and diplomatic, tactful treatment of foreign enemies while having nothing but the harshest, hatefully vituperative and merciless treatment of their domestic opponents. They have already rhetorically at minimum on numerous occasions used foreign enemies as proxies, and their mentors marched under the banner of more than one foreign foe, openly rooting for their victory, believing it would help discredit their domestic political opponents and advance their own cause.

These are facts: Pointing them out is only an act of intellectual honesty. It is simply chronicling current history accurately. None the less, it is extremely controversial to take note of this reality, except in the most indirect or praising way (that is, you can note it without controversy if you share their perspective). It is also not unfair to say that the outcome of what passes for their sage wisdom on the waging of war, and their fundamental transformation of traditional International Law and the Laws of War hinder their own nation's efforts and make it easier for their country's enemies (see previous posts in this series). This is what makes "asymmetric warfare" possible at all. It is this kind of "warfare by proxy" that results in dictators getting their job through the New York Times, and even now regularly speak power to truth in their efforts to advantage undemocratic enemies of their country abroad at the expense of integrity. Once you've read about international law untainted by their manipulations, or what the drafters of the real Geneva Conventions had to say:
"(2) Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfil [sic] the following conditions:[
(a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
(b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
(c) that of carrying arms openly;
(d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.
you then realize that these people have turned reality on its head. It is no exaggeration to say that they now offer far more protection to what are, under true international law, unlawful combatants who in a sane era were not extended the protections given uniformed combatants, than anyone ever extended to lawful, uniformed combatants. It should surprise no one that deciples of 'Franz Fanon' (sic) would behave in such a fashion, and that they would be drawn to concepts aimed at persuading people that fighting insurgencies is futile (which flies in the face of actual historical experience in defeating insurgencies). One is to be portrayed as a wild-eyed extremist for noting in a non-laudatory way what they say in their own words, which itself represents 1) the enforced detachment from reality that we are nudged into and 2) one aspect of the very internal conflict under discussion here, where war methods are waged with ruthlessness against internal dissent. (Language is an important expression of mentality: a "War Room" is what one has to combat domestic enemies; a "Situation Room" is what is now used to address overseas crises).

They are not to be seen as extremist for behaving this way: You to be treated as an extremist nut engaging in un-American activities, even as a terrorist for opposing them at home and for highlighting such behavior in an unflattering way. The degeneration of our governing class is all the more evident in the fact that they are sincerely delusional, thinking of themselves as outsider underdogs "speaking truth to power" when they are the ones in power, and are everywhere speaking power to truth in their efforts to destroy all opposition root and branch, and the fact that even ostensibly sensible people like Steven M. Teles thinks that this is not only a legitimate attitude towards those who disagree with them at home, but "necessary": The idea of a "loyal opposition", legitimate institutions other than ones they control, has become so foreign to not only the core of this group, but its sympathizers, that they believe they have "no choice but to use the... tools at its disposal to destroy its opponents root and branch". Since they "agree with Mao that power comes largely from the barrel of a gun", it should not be a surprise that they are not above using proxy forces in an attempt to discredit and destroy their domestic political opponents in this way.

I could invoke far more examples to drive this point home, but those in the "reality-based community" that dismiss empirical reality would pooh-pooh it regardless. Suffice to say that the attitude of domestic warfare that our governing class displays, when combined with the incontrovertible fact that they are as grounded in reality as O'Brien, forms a dire combination that bodes ill for the future.

Bonus for Extra Credit: Compare and contrast a typical example of the sage military advice offered up by these people with Luttwak's and other real experts, as well as those with actual experience, and remembering that the British defeated an insurgency in Malaysia even while the "typical example's" conception was taking root. Which passes for conventional wisdom, and who does it serve that this is maintained as conventional wisdom, all empirical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding?

Pointed fact to keep in mind when addressing the Extra-Credit Question: FDR's America would have had no problem employing the means necessary to defeat opponents we now are expected to take for granted cannot be beaten militarily.

Note also that another real expert on matters military connects this outlook to a real ideology, whose aims you can judge for yourself.

Response to Potential Objection: Yes, in spring they sent more troops to Afghanistan, and they haven't followed through on their previous rhetoric about Iraq, behaving, now that they are in office, in a more responsible way. But note that they do not embrace this outlook as a means of discrediting themselves, it's only for the utility of destroying their domestic political opponents. So, when a process like this is underway, we should naturally expect their own behavior to differ from what their rhetoric was when they were assailing their opponents. At minimum temporizing and an obvious tension about what decision to make, as they struggle with the internal conflict of their ideology pulling them one way while their instinct for political survival tugs them the other way.

Nothing illustrates this better than Obama's recent speech. I believe he is sincere when he said ""I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way. I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary, and if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt."

I'm positive he sincerely perceives himself that way, just as he sincerely holds a contrary idea in his head (cognitive dissonance is not alien to these people). However, it is simply not part of his mental process that he already made such a decision (last spring, in sending additional troops), and he is now Hamlet over whether to back to the hilt or not, because of the tension between the siren song of their base, which is where their heart lays, where their own beliefs rest.

So we are served a public rationalization over why there is a delay in decision and why the forces necessary for victory ought to be denied which no rational people could possibly believe is sincere. We're to believe that a circle of Chicago Pols with close ties to the likes of ACORN and George Soros and benefit from shenannegans of all kinds are shocked, shocked! by political corruption in Afghanistan. Roman, please! If you sincerely believe that, as opposed to pretending to believe it because you're a sycophantic courtier speaking power to truth like the rest of the coterie surrounding this faction, I have only one question for you: Do you have your own cup to drool into, or do you have to share one?

Another objection of course is, aren't I just on the other side? In the great sense, no. I am chronicling this and hoping people will be aware of it. I certainly have sympathy for one side in this conflict, and as is obvious by what I concentrated on describing, hold the other in at best a minimum of high regard. But I am certainly not asking or hoping for you to become active in fighting against them and for Team B, aka "The Outer Party". That simply fuels the conflict. Additionally, voting, and other conventional political activism is a laughable way of thwarting this, as the locus of their power, is insulated from democratic politics as we normally understand it. Being in office helps the velocity by which they "affect change", marginally, but being out of office does not cripple them, as they are never truly out of power. The tides still flow.

I have no program, and won't offer up the usual "ten point plan for restoring the Republic" of items that range from the futile to the banal that others do and which are always so anticlimactically inconsequential or fantastically outside the realm of the possible (even as they illustrate the point I am making here, in that 70% of the voting public would support them, or something like them, but there aint no way they'll ever get close to be placed on the agenda) as to be depressing.

The last thing I should advocate is "taking sides" in this conflict and fighting it, as tempting as that is. Hopefully someone out there does have some idea of how to resolve this non-catastrophically, and I chronicle and describe it in no small part in the hope that someone shall put their mind to it.

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Blogger David Blue said...

Thank you for this great post, which I am showing my friends.

The standing invitation to "lawfare" in foreign courts is another aspect of the modern problem you point to. (link)

November 5, 2009 at 8:44 PM  
Blogger David Blue said...

When doctrine must be written to flatter the enemy, and members of the armed forces have to be mis-educated accordingly, and to speak against this is to lose your job, you have a problem. (link)

November 6, 2009 at 6:25 PM  
Blogger Medievalists.net said...

You might be interested in the interview we did with Edward Luttwak, which you can find at http://www.medievalists.net/2009/11/22/interview-with-edward-n-luttwak/

November 22, 2009 at 4:05 PM  

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