Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Robert Farley

rss feed

Notes on Transformation

[ 0 ] January 18, 2006 |

Via Crooked Timber, a brief excerpt of Thomas X. Hammes book on the Pentagon and military transformation. Colonel Hammes is deeply skeptical of the effectiveness of a Transformed military in fourth generation warfare. He is also rather unfair to the French Army, but that’s not surprising. More on this last later.

Also see, via AG, this article by Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, contending that the basic problems with US counter-insurgency reside at the levels of national and organizational culture, rather than in technology. I tend to agree.

I have yet to comment on Kingdaddy’s five part counter-insurgency series, but I nonetheless recommend it to you. I’ll get around to discussing it eventually.

Ten Flicks that Define America

[ 0 ] January 17, 2006 |

Via Lance comes this interesting question.

You have to explain America to someone from not here, but you can only use ten movies to do it. Which ten do you choose?

The idea is not to give them a history lesson, so you don’t have to start with The New World and end with Jarhead.

What you’re trying to do is give them a sense of who we are—your take on our dreams, our attitudes, our idioms, what we think we are, what we are afraid we are, what we really might be.

I’ve given this a little bit of thought, becuase I used to have some fun by imagining, at a given moment, that some Founder or other famous personage would find themselves transported to the present day, and would need some sort of explanation of America and the world. Cars in particular, I thought, would always be difficult. My favorite two visitors were Thomas Jefferson and Cicero; don’t ask me why, because I can’t explain. Anyway, thinking about this question through the medium of film is particularly interesting, because I also like to use movies as pedagogic devices. This is what I came up with, in no particular order:

1. Lone Star: Lone Star is really about everything, from a particularly American form of local corruption to the collision of race, class, and power on a small stage. Sayles has been trying to remake Lone Star for years (Sunshine State, Limbo) for years, but I don’t think that lightning strikes twice on this one.

2. Once Upon a Time in the West: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance might have taken this spot, as they’re more or less about the same thing; the extension of the East into the West. I love them both, and whether you prefer the former or the latter depends in large part on the interpretation of the expansionary project. It’s odd, but not really surprising, that a pair of Italians (Leone, Bertolluci) could demonstrate such insight into America.

3. Do the Right Thing: Do the Right Thing has plenty of flaws, but it also has plenty of things going right for it. It deserves inclusion as a chronicle of racial tension and urban life in America.

4. Blazing Saddles: The end of the Western, at least as it had been conceived of in John Wayne’s era. Indeed, I think that the Western as a genre needs to be interpreted through the lense of Blazing Saddles, with its implicit discussion of rural and urban politics and its explicit message on race and the West.

5. GoodFellas: I’ve seen Taxi Driver included on lots of lists, and it is appropriate, but I think GoodFellas and Raging Bull fit better. Taxi Driver presents too grim a picture even for me. GoodFellas is, in large part, about the intersection of class and white ethnic identity. While I prefer Godfather as a film, GoodFellas paints a more accurate and compelling picture of America, largely because of the class component.

6. Night of the Living Dead: The Manchurian Candidate might also have occupied this slot, but I think Night of the Living Dead is a better, more important film. The terror and paranoia in NotLD is more immediate and practical than in The Manchurian Candidate. In the latter, our neighbors may be communists. In the former, they’re quite a bit worse. More importantly, we don’t get saved by Frank Sinatra, and our hero is undone in the end for the most mundane, casual, and meaningless of reasons.

7. Badlands: Again with the empty geographic space, but what I like best is the metaphorical empty space that Spacek and Sheen can only fill with a cobbled together dime store romance narrative. One of my favorite films.

8. The Searchers: I know that some prefer other Ford, including MWSLV and Stagecoach, but I cannot seriously entertain such arguments. Wayne’s Edwards is one of the most complex, difficult, troubled, and American characters ever to appear on celluloid.

9. Raging Bull: GoodFellas in a different context. Context matters.

10. Citizen Kane: Included both for its narrative and for its place in film history. Money, politics, and fame are tied together differently in American that anywhere else. CK also demonstrates the possibilities of the medium, a medium in which America is pre-eminent.

This list is a bit grim, possibly because I like grim movies. It’s also Western-heavy; Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Blazing Saddles are clearly Westerns, while Badlands and Lone Star are close. I don’t think that’s unfair, especially considering that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would probably come next. You don’t have to buy the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis to believe that space and the West are critical to the American experience, and in important ways set America apart from Europe and elsewhere. Race, another theme critical to America, is present in at least five of the films I selected, although usually in different ways. The presence or absence of the state also plays a large role in all but two of the films.

Honorable Mention: Office Space, Sunset Boulevard, Groundhog Day, High Noon, The Machurian Candidate, Chinatown, Scarface, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Fog of War, Days of Heaven, Touch of Evil, Once Upon a Time in America, Pulp Fiction


[ 0 ] January 17, 2006 |

Fascinating. Via Baseball Prospectus, subscription required.

Do you know you can already get a bet down on whether or not Mark McGwire will be elected to the Hall of Fame next year? I was poking around one of those off-shore gambling sites and found a proposition with the following lines:

Yes: +240
No: -300

Hmmm… it’s interesting that it’s even come to this. Six years ago, he looked like a mortal lock. Now, you have a shot at making money betting against him getting in. Count on nothing–oh, except that Cal Ripken Jr. is a mortal lock. That much we know.

That seems to radically understate his chances, but I suppose that I may be underestimating the effect of the steroid hysteria. I doubt very much that McGwire will be kept out of the Hall of Fame for long, but it’s possible that the voters may decide to punish him by keeping him on the shelf for a year or two. In my view this is entirely unjustified; steroids or no, he’s one of the most fearsome hitters ever to play the game.

Damn Dirty Hippies

[ 0 ] January 16, 2006 |

Dear Bill Kristol, Victor David Hanson, Niall Ferguson, and the right side of the blogosphere,

We understand that you don’t like lefties, pacifists, Europeans, the MSM, Democrats, hippies, and what not. We’re cool with it. We would suggest, however, that if you really want to use military force on Iran, then you should spend more time talking about how that might actually be done, and less talking about how the ineffectual, soft, feminzed lefties are going to stop it all from happening.

Really. You’re starting to sound obsessive.

All the best,


How Iraq Screwed Up Iran

[ 0 ] January 16, 2006 |

Those in favor of attacking Iran (my reservations about the words “hawk” and “dove” persist) are fond of declaring that the invasion of Iraq has not hurt our position with Iran. This position is not defensible. Let me count the ways…

At best, the invasion of Iraq has had no effect on the Iranian nuclear program. At worst, it has spurred that program to new heights. Iran is not a dictatorship in the sense of, say, Stalin’s Soviet Union. Decisions are made a cadre of political and religious leaders. Some of these leaders are demonstrably more willing to deal with the West than others. Since the invasion of Iraq (and really, since the declaration of Iran’s membership in the Axis of Evil) the position of moderates within Iran has been dramatically undercut. Their arguments don’t get listened to, they don’t get elected, and they don’t get promoted to positions of importance. Now it’s possible that this wouldn’t have made a difference, and that Iran would at least have pursued nuclear weapons regardless of the invasion of Iraq. However, it’s clear that the invasion didn’t help the situation, and I think rather likely, that the invasion of Iraq has presented the Iranian leadership with an example of what happens to a country that doesn’t have nuclear weapons when the US comes calling.

The opportunity cost of the Iraq invasion in security terms has yet to be calculated. The conquest of Afghanistan was more or less complete by the end of 2001. This left plenty of time for the United States to develop infrastructure and bases for military action against Iran. Afghanistan is not the best place to use as a base of operations against another country, but the Soviet Union was able to operate a large army in the country, and I don’t think there’s any doubt the United States could have done so as well. Had serious military preparations been made against Iran, rather than against Iraq, it is at least plausible that the nuclear program could have been forestalled or delayed. Instead, the Bush administration decided to engage in a strategic blunder which had the effect of reducing our capacity to deal forcefully with Iran. This has, in effect, given Iran a three year window to pursue its nuclear program and build up its conventional forces. Dealing with Iran in 2006 or 2007 will be much more difficult than dealing with Iran in 2003. This is to say nothing of the impact of the Iraq War on domestic and international public opinion; neocons are not in the habit of taking such things seriously anyway, so I’ll refrain from boring them.

Whereas Iraq was once a security liability for Iran, it is now a security liability for the United States. Perhaps the only useful purpose Saddam Hussein fulfilled was providing Iran with a security problem. In 2003, the United States solved this problem for Iran, and created a problem for itself. US troops in Iraq are now vulnerable to indirect attack from Iran. I don’t expect that Iran would take direct action against US forces in Iraq, even in response to air attacks. However, Iran has multiple indirect levers for making the situation in Iraq much, much more difficult. Iran can disrupt the political process in Iraq by putting pressure on moderate Shia groups and supporting radical groups. It can grant safe havens to insurgents along the very long Iran-Iraq border. It can allow insurgent groups to coordinate attacks against US forces from secure areas. It can fund insurgent groups, and supply them with various types of weaponry. In short, occupying Iraq means that we now must defend Iraq. This is a lesson that a four year old learns easily enough; getting more stuff means more stuff to protect.

The Iranians also must know, at this point, that an invasion and occupation of their country is not in the cards. In 2003, this might not have been the case. Now, however, the idea that the United States could administer a conquered Iran is absurd. At worst, Iran will undergo a series of heavy air attacks, which may or may not serve to eliminate its nuclear program. In attempting to create a reputation for resolve, the Bush administration has fatally undermined its ability to present the other factor in credibility, which is capability. Kristol, Hanson, and Ferguson have been relatively cagey in their calls for military action against Iran in that they have specified no actual proposals, instead preferring to spend most of their time mocking Democrats. Even they must realize, however, that a full invasion and conquest of Iran is not a plausible foreign policy goal for the United States. Given this, the costs that we can present to the Iranians for pursuing nuclear weapons are limited, and Iran may choose to pay them.

Don’t let anyone try to convince you that the Iraq operation hasn’t been a strategic disaster for Iran policy. Kristol, Ferguson, Hanson, and all the others are quite correct that Iran is a threat, and that Iranian nuclear weapons are bad news. They may even be right that military force is the only option for solving this problem. However, the policy that these people advocated in 2003 to solve this problem has made it much, much worse. We can thank the Weekly Standard, at least in very small part, for the difficulty of the Iran problem in 2006.

Munich: The Analogy that Keeps on Giving

[ 0 ] January 16, 2006 |

When you’ve got absolutely nothing, reach for Munich:

As in the 1930s, too, the West fell back on wishful thinking. Perhaps, some said, Ahmadinejad was only sabre-rattling because his domestic position was so weak. Perhaps his political rivals in the Iranian clergy were on the point of getting rid of him. In that case, the last thing the West should do was to take a tough line; that would only bolster Ahmadinejad by inflaming Iranian popular feeling. So in Washington and in London people crossed their fingers, hoping for the deus ex machina of a home-grown regime change in Teheran.

Niall goes on to tell a story of how demographic and cultural stagnation, combined with the efforts of some dirty pacifists in Europe and America, set the stage for the great War of 2007, in which Iran apparently launches a crusade against the West. We are supposed to believe that, somehow, the threat from Iran to the West is roughly similar to the threat posed by Germany in 1938. Germany, of course, possessed one of the most powerful economies in the world, as well as the most professional army anywhere. Iran would seem a bit less powerful, but Niall doesn’t let this stop him…

The devastating nuclear exchange of August 2007 represented not only the failure of diplomacy, it marked the end of the oil age. Some even said it marked the twilight of the West. Certainly, that was one way of interpreting the subsequent spread of the conflict as Iraq’s Shi’ite population overran the remaining American bases in their country and the Chinese threatened to intervene on the side of Teheran.

Yet the historian is bound to ask whether or not the true significance of the 2007-2011 war was to vindicate the Bush administration’s original principle of pre-emption. For, if that principle had been adhered to in 2006, Iran’s nuclear bid might have been thwarted at minimal cost. And the Great Gulf War might never have happened.

Perhaps Niall would like to explain how the war lasted longer than the nuclear exchange; it seems to me quite likely that Israel, with nuclear weapons, could destroy the warmaking and demographic potential of Iran within a few minutes. Certainly, in a nuclear exchange, the United States would have no difficulties in doing so. Of course, the point here isn’t to paint any kind of realistic scenario; why build a flimsy house with no foundation when all you need is a facade?

Ferguson makes a couple of minor points worth noting. First, he suggests that the West can no longer “lord it over” the Islamic world, which I find curious given that the policy he seems in favor of, that is, the conquest of Iran and its neighbors, might well be described as quite literally “lording it over” the Islamic world. Second, in the above passage Ferguson admits, quite correctly, that our position in Iraq has become a strategic liability. I’m surprised; Niall Ferguson is hardly the person I would expect to admit the possibility of imperial overstretch, especially in the context of Iraq.

Matt’s commenter Ellen tags it right:

Self-indulgent silliness. Harvard should be embarrassed at such puerility.



[ 0 ] January 16, 2006 |

Rejection letters have lost their sting since I got a job, but I must nevertheless say that I’m a bit offended when an institution can’t even bother to proof-read its notices:

Dear Dr. Farley,

I am writing to let you know that the International Relations faculty position for which you applied has been filled. We had an excellent pool of candidates, so the selection process was very competitive.

With appreciation for your interest in the University of XXX and best wishess for your future success, I am,



What Would Jesus Crush?

[ 0 ] January 16, 2006 |

Words fail.

Hat tip to graefix. Also check out what appears to be graefix’ new blog.

The Ledeen Doctrine

[ 0 ] January 15, 2006 |

“Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

Now that we’re getting to the nub on Iran, let’s talk a bit about one of the biggest failures of the Iraq operation. Iraq was, by demonstrating the resolve of the United States, supposed to eliminate the need for military action in Iran and North Korea. The failure of the Iraq operation on this count is total; if Iraq becomes a democratic, secular paradise tomorrow, it will still have failed to terrify our enemies around the world into submission.

The situations in Iran and North Korea have deteriorated considerably since 2003. North Korea either has nuclear weapons or the means to produce them. Iran has not become more receptive to our demands; indeed, conservative elements have grown consistently stronger since before the Iraq operation. The only success that supporters of the Iraq operation have on this count is the decision of Libya to give up its weapons. This is a bad joke, of course and suffers from the post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy; no military threat against Libya was made, and Libya began moving closer to the West in the late 1990s, long before military action against Iraq was contemplated. Only an unapologetic partisan or a moron could believe that the invasion of Iraq has had the reputational effects that were imputed to it. One might even be inclined to think that a reputation for resolve is worthless in international relations…

In short, the Ledeen Doctrine is garbage. Destroying a small country every ten years or so will not, it appears, provide for our security. Iran has not been cowed by US military action; at best, the decision to invade Iraq can be held to have no important impact on Iranian nuclear ambitions. At worse (and I think that this is far more credible) the US invasion has provided the Iranian leadership with external impetus and domestic political capital for pursuing the nuclear option. Which of these is true isn’t really very relevant; the fact that destroying a country in order to look tough doesn’t work is a lesson that we should not soon forget.

I will leave it to a more qualified theorist than myself to work out the gender implications of the Ledeen Doctrine, although it seems relatively clear to me that much of the doctrine (and much of the idea that reputation is important) is built around a particular conception of toughness and masculinity, a conception that many seem to mistake for good policy.

Wilton Park Wrap-Up

[ 0 ] January 15, 2006 |

The Wilton Park experience was nothing less that outstanding for me, despite the fact that I suffered from lingering jet lag and a nagging cold for the entire week.

I was surprised to find myself as the only “pure” academic at the conference. There were other academics, but all had considerable policy experience. The majority of the attendees were policy makers, most from various NGOs and government agencies, and a few from military organizations. We had generals, serving and retired, from the US Army, French Army, Bundeswehr, and British Army, as well as a Royal Navy admiral. I picked the brain of the last for quite some time, on issues spanning from the Falklands War to piracy to the RN reaction to the attack on the USS Cole.

As I mentioned before, the discussions were held at a uniformally high level. There was none of the posturing that one normally finds at academic conferences; everyone seemed generally interested in being there. One participant expressed surprise that no journalists from the major defense news outlets were covering the proceedings, given that the future of NATO was being discussed by important folks. In the future, I don’t think that major foreign policy bloggers would find themselves out of place, assuming they could get someone to pay their way.

My one major complaint regards the weather. I don’t understand why conferences must be held during the nastiest months of the year, relative to their location. West Sussex in spring, fall, or summer would have been delightful, and I would have been able to climb up to Chanctonbury Ring without almost losing a shoe. The cold and damp probably played some role in the fact that nearly everyone at the conference had some degree of sinus congestion.

Stability Operations and Network-Centric Warfare

[ 0 ] January 15, 2006 |

The discussion here at Wilton Park has not made me any more optimistic about the commitment of the US Army to stability operations. The US continues to seem more committed to pursuing high tech transformation, embodied by Future Combat Systems, than to developing a serious low intensity capability.

I should say that there isn’t an inherent contradiction between network centric warfare and low intensity operations. Network centric warfare is about rendering the battlefield intelligible and therefore plastic. Commanders receive a tremendous amount of data about the battlefield in short order, and communications technology allows the interpretation and transmission of that data such that fire and force can be allocated in a very fast and efficient manner. The digital transformation holds great promise for high-intensity warfare, where knowing about the battlefield, communicating vertically and horizontally, and being able to direct firepower efficiently can lead to and extremely effective force. While the necessity to efficiently direct fire isn’t as important in low intensity operations (firepower isn’t as important), knowing more about the situation, and being able to communicate vertically and horizontally in an efficient way, are always good things.

However, network centric military units have drawbacks in low intensity situations. The sort of intelligence required to execute peacekeeping and counter-insurgency operations differs from the intelligence needed in high intensity warfare. The primary difficulty in low intensity operations is differentiating the enemy from the environment, including, most notably, the local population. Technology is only of limited assisstance in this project. It is also thought that highly digitized military units will be easier for commanders to manipulate. In high intensity warfare this is a good thing; central commanders should know where there units are, what they can do, and where they’re going. In low intensity warfare, lower level officer initiative seems to be more critical to success, as only a limited amount of the sort of information critical to success (local morale and mood, for example) can be transmitted to high level commanders.

There are also some basic tradeoffs that may make digitized warfare unsuitable for low intensity operations. We only have soldiers for a limited amount of time, and they can only engage in so much training. High intensity, network centric operations require a great deal of specialized training, and its unclear where other types of training will fit in. Finally, digital units are expensive, which means that they can be deployed in lower numbers. This may be the biggest problem of all, given that there seems to be a consensus regarding the importance of numbers in stability operations.

Without going into too much detail (Chatham House Rule), it looks as if the major military organizations of the West are approaching the question of network centric warfare in low-intensity operations in different ways. The French seem fully aware that there is a contradiction, but are pushing forward with digitization in any case. The Germans are very interested in network centric warfare, but seem to believe that it enhance their low intensity capabilities. Indeed, at least some of them see digitization as the means of moving away from high intensity operations. I find this odd. The Americans remain committed to network-centric warfare, and appear to hope that it will work out well in low-intensity operations, although I didn’t see much to convince me that this would be the case.

Sunday Battleship Blogging: USS Utah

[ 0 ] January 15, 2006 |

USS Utah (BB-31) was the sixth dreadnought battleship commissioned by the US Navy. She entered service in August of 1911. Utah and her sister Florida were the first two US battleships to use steam turbines, although some later battleships (New York, Texas, and Oklahoma) would revert to reciprocating engines. Utah displaced 22000 tons, carried 10 12″ guns, and could make 21 knots.

The battle squadron constructed by the United States between 1910 and 1921 avoided many of the problems of the Royal Navy, the High Seas Fleet, and the Imperial Japanese Navy. From Delaware on, the ships were all relatively heavily armed, armored, and consistent in speed. It was not difficult, therefore, for the fleet to operate as a unit. In contrast, the Royal Navy included battlecruisers, which, while useful for many operations, could not operate safely in the battle line. Also, the dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy varied widely in speed; this could be a handicap in battle, as faster ships could get separated from slower. The same problems existed in the High Seas Fleet and the IJN.

Utah, like many US ships of the period, engaged in her first combat action off Vera Cruz in April 1914. A contingent of sailors and marines were supported by offshore gunnery, and the men of Utah apparently distinguished themselves. Utah did not play much of a role in World War I, as she was not included in the squadron allocated to the Grand Fleet in 1917. Utah didn’t arrive in Great Britain until September 1918, acting as a convoy escort. Like all other US battleships, she saw no combat.

The interwar period was relatively eventful for Utah. Twice, Utah served as the flagship of a squadron engaged in a goodwill cruise of South America. The second cruise included President-elect Herbert Hoover. Utah underwent modernization in 1925, losing her aft cage mast and receiving more anti-aircraft guns. Most of the rest of the period before 1930 was spent as a training ship.

The 1930 London Naval Treaty moved a step beyond the 1922 Washington Treaty. The latter was intended to forestall a naval arms race, which many, especially in Great Britain, blamed for World War I. The massive battleship building programs of the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom were suspended in favor of a naval construction freeze and strict limits on the size of battlefleets. The United States was allowed to keep 18 battleships, including Utah. The London Naval Treaty sought to reduce the number of battleships in each fleet. The new limit for the US and the UK was 15, as opposed to 9 for Japan. This necessitated the elimination of several units from each fleet. Utah found herself on the chopping block. Rather than scrap Utah, however, it was decided to disarm and convert her into a target ship.

Utah served in this capacity for eleven years. On December 7, 1941, Utah was moored some distance to the northwest of Battleship Row. The Japanese torpedo bomber pilots were rather less than interested in Utah’s demilitarized status, and at 801am she was hit forward port by a single torpedo. Eleven minutes later, Utah rolled over and sank. Remarkably, only 64 of a crew of 471 died, with some sailors being rescued after their blowtorch-armed comrades cut through the bottom of the hull.

Utah was the oldest battleship to serve in World War II, but not the oldest to serve as a battleship, an honor which goes to USS Arkansas. Utah’s service in the war lasted about fifteen minutes. However, the service was not wholly irrelevant; the torpedo that hit Utah might have hit another US battleship, resulting in the deaths of more sailors. Utah remains at the bottom of Pearl Harbor today, although she is visted far less frequently than Arizona.

Trivia: What was the first battleship sunk by the Allies during World War II? Hint: The Graf Spee was not a battleship.

  • Switch to our mobile site