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Category: Robert Farley

Foreign Entanglements: Entangling Crimea

[ 0 ] March 4, 2014 |

On the latest episode of Foreign Entanglements I speak with Dmitry Gorenburg about the invasion of Crimea:

The Resolve Fairy and the Precedent Fairy

[ 139 ] March 2, 2014 |

I mention it below, but it’s worth reiterating how facile the “resolve” argument is with respect to Russia’s incursion into Crimea.  The causal argument runs thus: Putin believed, because of Obama’s unwillingness to launch military strikes on Syria, that the United States would not interfere with Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Because the United States had refrained from using military force in a case where Obama had made a (relatively) clear commitment to the use of force, the US would not use force to defend an area it had no (serious) legal obligation to defend.

Phrased in these terms, the argument is very nearly self-refuting.  Essentially, partisans of the Resolve Fairy are demanding that Obama create in Putin’s mind the belief that a Russian invasion will be met with US military force, despite the fact that there is nearly zero chance that any administration, in a similar position, would use force.  Say what you will about Vladimir Putin, but he is not a stupid man.  If the most hawkish administration in recent history failed to counter a Russian invasion of a US client in 2008, what are the chances that the United States will do so now?  Any threat to use force in defense of Crimea (or Georgia, for that matter), is a bluff, and not a particularly strong one. The notion that even a wildly successful military campaign against Assad would have convinced Putin that the US would intervene in Crimea is very nearly absurd.

And it gets worse, of course.  Let’s imagine a world in which cruise missiles, a no fly zone, and a few airstrikes had managed to topple Assad (just work with me).  It is widely believed that the destruction of a Russian client in Libya at the hands of NATO added to Putin’s conviction to support Syria at all costs. There’s every reason to believe that the US induced collapse of the Assad regime would have made Putin more, not less, risk acceptant; prospect theory is a thing.  The same people whining about Obama’s “indecisiveness” about Syria would, in this case, have drawn a clear line between the Russian setback in the Middle East and Russian aggression in Ukraine.

And while we’re here, a moment about the Precedent Fairy.  Partisans of the Precedent Fairy (generally associated with either the realist school or the left), argue for the causal power of US precedent on Russian behavior.  The most common argument runs thus; because the United States intervened on behalf of an ethnic enclave in the Kosovo War, the Russians feel secure in making similar interventions on behalf of their own preferred enclaves.  It’s worth emphasizing that the Precedent Fairy isn’t as wrong as the Resolve Fairy, or as dangerous; international society is a complex ideational system of laws, norms, and understandings, and the behavior of major powers does often affect how other states interpret the parameters of the possible. But it’s almost certainly wrong, in this case, to try to draw a direct line between Kosovo and South Ossetia, or Kosovo and Crimea.  For one, Russia began intervening on behalf of favored enclaves before the Soviet Union formally collapsed, so precedent wasn’t particularly necessary.  For another, Russia cares a lot more about Crimea than the US will ever care about Kosovo.  It would have ample reason to intervene even without the precedent set by NATO.

What partisans of the Resolve Fairy and the Precedent Fairy do share is a substantial over-estimation of the importance of US behavior in Russian decision-making.  The US is big and important, but stuff happens in the world that doesn’t have much to do with the attitudes or behavior of the United States. Russia has a rich foreign policy history to draw on, and assuming that Russia’s behavior depends on the last three things that Obama said is almost always going to be wrong.

Crazy Crimea Crisis Continues

[ 101 ] March 2, 2014 |

Some links:


Crimea Links

[ 58 ] February 28, 2014 |

Stuff on Ukraine… Chris Lofting

Russia Not Kidding Around

[ 92 ] February 28, 2014 |



Around 400 people are in the airport of Belbek now. They have occupied runway and all plane movements have been stopped,” the news agency quoted the source as saying.

At the same time, AP journalists in Crimea have spotted a convoy of nine Russian armored personnel carriers and a truck on a road between the port city of Sevastopol and the regional capital, Sinferopol.

The Russian tricolor flags were painted on the vehicles, which were parked on the side of the road near the town of Bakhchisarai, apparently because one of them had mechanical problems.

Russia is supposed to notify Ukraine of any troop movements outside the naval base it maintains in Sevastopol under a lease agreement with Ukraine.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said movements of armored vehicles belonging to the Russian Black Sea Fleet were prompted by the need to ensure security of its base and didn’t contradict the lease terms.

As you may recall, Russia is deeply committed to the principle of state sovereignty.

The Good Fight: Bush vs. Obama?

[ 0 ] February 28, 2014 |

Last week I moderated an episode of The Good Fight, a new Bloggingheads venture.  The discussion, between Cato’s Justin Logan and Thinkprogress’ Zack Beauchamp, revolved around how we assess the differences between Bush and Obama era foreign policy:


[ 91 ] February 28, 2014 |

In case you weren’t paying attention…

Amid fears of a Kremlin-backed separatist rebellion here against Ukraine’s fledgling government, armed men in military uniforms took up positions at two Crimean airports as Ukraine’s interior minister warned of “a direct provocation,” but there was no sign of any violence.

In Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea, a large number of masked armed men were stationed at the international airport Friday morning. They were dressed in camouflage and carrying assault rifles, but their military uniforms bore no insignia. It was not clear who they were and they declined to answer questions.

A new frozen conflict? Depends on the reaction of the Ukranian military.



Creeping IP

[ 3 ] February 27, 2014 |

My latest at the Diplomat dabbles in some constructivism:

As Susan Sell has argued, international IP protection is, in and of itself, a power play on the part of major economic actors.  The construction and maintenance of the rule systems owes itself to the entrepreneurial behavior of private business, working not only through the U.S. government, but also through international institutions.  As such, power relations are embedded within the rules of the IP system, and within our entire way of talking about intellectual property.  This is one reason why the IP provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership have proven so controversial.

But adherence to international institutional frameworks isn’t entirely voluntary. The demands of international organizations (and, in bilateral terms, of the EU and the United States) require the Chinese government to develop a position on intellectual property, a set of policies designed to support that position, and the bureaucracy necessary to execute those policies. While this bureaucracy may lack power initially, over time the state acquires what amount to habits of compliance, where it becomes more problematic to step outside the expectations of the international regime than to stay within them.  In China Goes GlobalDavid Shambaugh outlines this process with respect to China’s engagement with the various regimes of the liberal international economic order.  Thus, the development of a bureaucracy to manage IP rights, which China has begun, almost inevitably produces a policy shift towards compliance.


Grounded on Kindle!

[ 7 ] February 27, 2014 |

The Kindle version of Grounded is now available.  If I were you I’d wait until March 11, when you can take advantage of the UPK e-book loyalty program to get both the physical and the electronic copies, but to each his or her own…

A Review! A Review?

[ 82 ] February 26, 2014 |

This is the first five-authored book review I’ve ever seen:


It’s not every day someone argues that an entire service of the United States Armed Forces should be disappeared. But that is exactly what Robert Farley proposes in his new book, Grounded. Farley makes a case for the elimination of the U.S. Air Force, basing his argument on the inaccurate notion that strategic bombing is the sole reason for its existence as an independent service. He also takes the Air Force to task for not adequately supporting ground forces. He believes Air Force aircraft are best subsumed into the Army and Navy for better support of soldiers and sailors. In doing so, Farley disregards what the Air Force does best—air domain dominance—and undervalues a key component of United States historical successes in combat….

On the basis of these conclusions, and mindful of the incredible record of success achieved by America’s armed forces from the advent of the airplane to today, we ask ourselves whether we are willing to bet the lives of America’s sons and daughters, and the security of this nation, on Professor Farley’s recommendation.  We are not.

Whenever I review a book, I revisit Robert Pinsky’s Slate article on the Three Golden Rules of Book Reviewing.

I’d like to think that the three essentials for reviewers were invented by Aristotle, preserved by his students, and handed down for thousands of years by oral tradition. After all, before the review was an important category of journalism, before physical books, even before printing, readers must have asked other readers to report on works they had not yet read from scrolls or tablets. I first encountered the three requirements in the 1970s, when I used to write the old, traditional Consumer Reports style of reviews I have in mind here—sometimes under a pen name—because I needed the money, even in the small quantities paid to reviewers. This was the age of the typewriter, and one of the newspapers I wrote for gave me the rules as part of the same photocopied style-sheet that specified the quality of ribbon, the size of margins, where to double-space, when to use italics, all-caps, or quotation marks for titles, where to put the reviewer’s byline, and so forth…

Every book review, said the anonymous document, must follow three rules:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

Now, in some sense this review fulfills all three rules. Grounded is, indeed, about abolishing the Air Force. I do, in fact, think that the Air Force should be abolished. The reviewers don’t think that the Air Force should be abolished. Beyond that, however, I must confess that my disappointment with the review extends beyond the fact that  the assembled captains and colonels remain unconvinced. The review cites no specific arguments that I make in the book, beyond the title, and what I’ve alluded to in the various articles associated with the book. The review cites no specific pages or passages, and makes no claims with respect to errors of fact. The reviewers do not engage in any way with my discussion of organizational theory, my depiction of the history of the RAF or the USAF, my discussion of lawfare and the morality of airpower, or with my discussion of the impact of drone technology on airpower theory. On at least one point– “He believes the Air Force should support ground forces—period”– the reviewers badly mis-characterize my argument.

Were the five reviewers, all having read the book with some care, unable to agree on specific problems? Did they determine that a broad rebuttal on policy grounds was more useful than an actual book review?  I’m curious.

In any case, I’ll have a longer response a bit later this week.

USAF Links

[ 10 ] February 25, 2014 |

From the latest re-rebuttal:

With Robert Farley responding to my critique of his Foreign Affairs article, “Ground the Air Force,” our ongoing debate on the pages of the National Interest serves a useful purpose in the larger discussion concerning the roles, missions, and structure of not only the Air Force, but the US military as a whole. Just as with his initial article, it seems Dr. Farley has offered an incomplete picture of airpower and is uneven in his criticism of Air Force leadership.

From Duffel Blog:

A U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthog ground attack plane was seen sulking and sobbing on the sidelines of the Pentagon’s sporting complex, after it was completely cut from the national defense team on Monday.

“I work my ass off out there. I practice more than half these guys,” said the A-10 in between sobs. “How the hell could they choose the F-35 over me? For a so-called ‘stealth fighter’, he sure is getting intercepted a whole heck of a lot.”

While picking teams for its annual scrimmage against North Korea, the U.S. National Security team picked the Global Hawk drone, the F-35, and budget levels from before World War II. Forced to sit and watch from the bench were the A-10, the U-2 spy plane, and thousands of soon-to-be unemployed soldiers and Marines.

And an interview with WUKY.


Sunday Book Review: Command and Control

[ 16 ] February 23, 2014 |

Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety has, since its release, garnered a remarkable amount of attention for a book on nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.  Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness among other books, has turned his eye to nuclear theory and the early history of the United States Air Force. Much like cheeseburgers, pizza,  and heroin, it turns out that while everybody loves nukes, they aren’t particularly  good for you.

What it’s About

Command and Control traces the history of nuclear weapons deployment across the three U.S. services, with an overwhelming focus on the Air Force.  Schlosser episodically tells the story of the 1980 Titan II incident in Damascus, Arkansas, interspersing this narrative with descriptions of a litany of other nuclear accidents and near accidents, from the dropping of a nuclear core in 1946 to a wide variety of bomber mishaps in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Schlosser gives a good account of why military and civilian policymakers felt that expanding the US nuclear arsenal was necessary, and of how they approached considerations of safety.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, civilian officials demanded much higher safeguards than the Air Force could concede. Absolutely committed to the reliability of the nuclear arsenal, the services fought hard against steps that could prevent accidents and unauthorized usage. Even as measures to prevent theft, destruction, or premature detonation of nuclear weapons improved over the decades, nuclear incidents continued.

What Does it Contribute?

These stories are familiar to people who’ve read works such as Scott Sagan’s Limits of Safety, Lynn Eden’s Whole World on Fire, Richard Rhodes’s classic The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and dozens of other books on the early years of nuclear weapon safety and doctrine in the United States. In fact, I suspect that for people interested in the subject, the stories are a bit too familiar; there’s nothing really new here.  During the (fabulously executed) PR rollout of Command and Control, the most interesting reactions came in response to the Goldsboro incident, in which one nuclear weapon was lost and another nearly activated. Although Schlosser presented some new information on the arming switch, none of this was particular surprising to people who followed the history of nuclear weapons policy in the United States.  Indeed, Schlosser spends little time on the Goldsboro incident compared to the Damascus Titan II explosion, where he has numerous first person accounts.

Unlike Sagan or Eden, there’s no obvious theory underlying Schlosser’s account, beyond the notion that nuclear weapons are dangerous and tend to fall apart in alarming ways. At times, the fascination with nuclear disaster porn seems to overwhelm Schlosser’s better instincts as a writer.  When breaking from the central narrative of the Damascus Titan II incident, he recounts near-accident after near-accident, which of course re-affirms the point that even the most tightly held possessions of the U.S. military can break or go missing. At some point the litany ceases to cause alarm and begins to induce not only numbness, but perhaps even the sense that the military is very bad at preventing a certain level of accident, and apparently very good at preventing the escalation of those accidents.

To take a contemporary comparison, Douglas Keeney’s Fifteen Minutes has virtually the same structure as Command and Control.  Keeney intersperses vignettes of the transition between the Bomber Age and the Missile Age across a narrative of another disaster, the collapse of Texas Tower 4 (an early warning radar installation) in the wake of a hurricane.  The cast of characters is very similar (Curtis LeMay plays an outsize role in both), as are the discussions of the underlying logics that drove the development of the arsenals.  But I think I learned more from Keeney’s book, even though it’s half the length and I found the structure off-putting (Keeney’s vignettes are very short, producing a disruptive, episodic reading experience.

On the upside, Schlosser writes beautifully, and I say this as someone who has recently written on virtually the same subject.  Reading Schlosser while copy-editing my own work throws the limitations of my prose into stark relief. Much of the writing on this subject has been academic, with all of the benefits and drawbacks that entails. Schlosser’s description of the collapse and explosion of the Titan II near Damascus is well-researched, detail-oriented, and exceptionally vivid, with strong, well placed personal accounts supplementing the technical aspects. It’s also worth noting that while Schlosser doesn’t pace his story well and doesn’t have much of a theoretical account, he also doesn’t include any serious howlers, although his description of intra-Air Force conflict between the fighter and bomber factions left much to be desired.


I suspect that others will get more from this book than I.  As suggested, Keeney’s book gives more information about the topic in less space, although arguably in a less readable fashion. For experts, there’s not much here beyond some anecdotes that haven’t been fully fleshed out.  Little about Command and Control will surprise anyone who’s read the work of Sagan and Rhodes. But Schlosser does present his material well, and I can imagine this being a useful introductory text to the history of nuclear conflict during the Cold War.

See also Texican and Menand.


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