Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Robert Farley

rss feed

Germany and Conscription

[ 0 ] January 18, 2006 |

At Wilton Park, a German general made the case for conscription. Germany is more or less prohibited from maintaining a purely professional military force, so it isn’t really all that surprising that the general would make a virtue out of necessity. Nevertheless, at least one part of his argument was particularly interesting; he suggested that conscription actually improved the quality of the Bundeswehr.

Now, this is not an argument that is typically given on behalf of conscription. Lots of people argue that conscription can help solve shortfalls in recruitment, and the German general echoed this claim, specifically referencing the difficulties that other Western European nations have had in filling recruting quotas. Conscription is usually described as a trade-off between numbers and quality; conscripts are believed to perform at a lower level of expertise and with less enthusiasm than volunteers. The US Army certainly holds to this belief, and various commentators have implied that conscription explains the relatively poor performance of the Army in Vietnam. This is absurd, of course; the difficulties the Army faced were at the tactical and operational planning levels, rather than at the level of tactical execution. Poorly trained conscripts are also blamed for the failure of Russia’s army in the first Chechen War.

The general rejected the idea that conscription requires a trade-off. Instead, he argued that conscription (which takes only a percentage of eligible German males in any case) allows the Bundeswehr to appropriate a cross-section of the skills it needs to operate as an organization. Instead of relying on volunteers to fill its ranks, the Bundeswehr can simply take what it needs. When those personnel are in the army, they can be offered particularized incentives for becoming professional soldiers, at least for a time. Thus, conscription allows the Bundeswehr to maintain a higher level of human capital among its personnel than a similar volunteer army. The general suggested that this was particularly important given the increasing technical demands that digitization puts on soldiers.

This argument is particularly interesting coming from a German, because the experience of the German Army in the 20th century has consistently defied the argument that conscripts damage military quality. Throughout the 20th century (and before, back to Prussian times) the German Army has managed both widespread conscription and extremely high quality, all the way down to the level of tactical execution.

To be clear, I’m not calling for conscription in the US. I do, however, think that some arguments against conscription are nonsense, and I suspect that the “quality” objection may be one of these. The experience of Germany and other Western European nations with conscription should also serve to dispel the notion that a draft makes a country more militaristic, violent, or conservative; there would appear to be virtually no evidence to back up these claims.

America’s Biggest Boondoggle

[ 0 ] January 18, 2006 |


Has a state ever wasted so much money on so pointless a project? Even if the interceptors worked, they would be useless; at best they would convince the Russians and Chinese to develop more and better missiles, at a fraction of what we’re spending. And if a missile shield isn’t 100%, or very near, it does not break us out of the deterrent relationship with even a small nuclear power like North Korea.

Yet we continue to pour the money down the rathole…

Aerial IED

[ 0 ] January 18, 2006 |

Just read an interesting report in Defense News about the proliferation of aerial IEDs in Iraq. Apparently, insurgents are developing IEDs that can propel themselves into the air and explode. This has damaged several helicopters. Since US helicopters have been flying a very low altitudes since 2003 or so, the tactics may turn out to be quite effective.

No link, unfortunately.

UPDATE: Dave helpfully provides links here, and here.

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.

  • Switch to our mobile site