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Category: Robert Farley

MH 17 Link Roundup

[ 51 ] July 18, 2014 |

A few links on the ongoing MH17 investigation:

To my mind, the most likely scenario (but not the only possible scenario!) is that Donetsk separatists acquired the SAM from existing Ukrainian stocks, then refurbished and put it into service with Russian military assistance. They likely lacked sufficient training to understand how to discriminate between a Ukrainian military transport and a commercial jet liner. The most interesting bits going forward will be reaction in the EU (how far will Berlin and Paris go to pressure Russia), and in Moscow itself.

…and also Gaza. I just have nothing useful to say about Gaza.

Shit, Meet Fan

[ 309 ] July 17, 2014 |


A Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has crashed in eastern Ukraine, Russian news agency Interfax reported Thursday.
The jet is a Boeing 777, according to Interfax.
The plane reportedly went down near the border between Russia and Ukraine.

The only conclusion that I’m prepared to leap to is that this is going to stir up even more trouble than the last Malaysian jet that crashed. Russia and Ukraine are actively contesting this area, they both have surface-to-air missiles, Russian partisans have shot down several Ukrainian planes over the past weeks, and the Russian Air Force has reportedly been testing Ukrainian air space in recent days.

So, yeah. Should’ve taken the long way around.

Comment Policy Changes

[ 210 ] July 17, 2014 |

A reliable maxim of the blogosphere is that no one likes change. In particular, no one likes changes to comment procedures, even as comment procedures produce one of the most reliable sources of complaint from, well, commenters.

You can probably see where this is going. We are considering a significant change to LGM’s commenting system, which would be to require registration under the current WordPress format. This would preserve existing comments while also limiting the worst trolling (and troll-hunting) behaviors.

This should be considered a thread for open discussion of this proposed change. I should note, however, that we are leaning heavily in this direction, at least for a trial period. Let us know what you think. Feel free to contact us privately, as well.

Foreign Entanglements: Gaza

[ 7 ] July 16, 2014 |

On the latest episode of Foreign Entanglements, Matt and I talk Gaza:

Iron Dome?

[ 242 ] July 15, 2014 |

The idea behind Iron Dome is that Israel can (with US assistance) spend several hundred million dollars to develop and purchase a set of batteries that can launch interceptor missiles that cost at least $20000 a pop to shoot down unguided rockets that cost several hundred dollars each.

If this works exactly as expected, and shoots down 80-90% of incoming rockets, it provides a strong incentive for Hamas and Hezbollah to launch rockets into Israel (even a miss is a hit at those prices!). If, as Ted Postol and others suggest, the hit rate is much lower, Iron Dome provides even more of an incentive for Hamas to launch rockets.

But hey, at least the protection that Iron Dome provides means that Israel doesn’t need to blast the bejeezus out of Gaza every two years, amirite?

Sunday Book Review: Sleepwalkers

[ 54 ] July 13, 2014 |

Of the many volumes that have emerged over the past year on the opening of the First World War, few have inspired as much discussion as Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers.   Several discussions of the book have broken out in long LGM threads; see here, here, here, here, and here.

As the title reflects, Clark argues that the war mostly happened through an accumulation of short-sighted policy maneuvers, the impact of which few could understand at the time. Policymakers in France, Russia, Austria, and Germany either were captured by organizational processes that made the full picture difficult to appreciate, or made miscalculations with respect to the commitment of other powers.  Clark doesn’t dispute that elements within every country either sought or welcomed war, or that the war parties were particularly strong in St. Peterburg, Berlin, and Vienna.  He argues, rather, that the assassination of the Archduke failed to resolve intra-governmental conflict in favor of war.  Instead, it pushed all of the states involved towards risk-acceptant behavior, with war as the result. This amounts to the most sophisticated story we have about World War I as “accident.”

Serbia provides the biggest exception to this rule.  Clark begins with the massacre of the Serbian royal family by a group of nationalist Serbian military officers, using this story to illustrate the virulent nature of Serbian nationalism. Eventually, this nationalist feeling would lead Serbia to ignore (or abet) the activities of terrorists groups within its borders, and to pursue a variety of destabilizing policies with respect to the Balkans and Austria-Hungary. Effectively, Clark argues that Serbian nationalism was more poisonous in nature and more dreadful in effect than any of the other virulent nationalisms circulating in Europe at the time.  He certainly makes a strong case for both; Serbian behavior toward occupied areas in both Balkan Wars was simply dreadful, and the impact of nationalist agitation seems to have had a singularly negative effect on Serbian domestic politics, with reverberations into Serbia’s international behavior

How this provided sufficient catalyst to drive the events of July 1914 is another question.  The Russians, British, and French were willing to overlook Serb atrocities in return for influence in the Balkans. Austrian policymakers were divided, with some seeking an excuse for war against Serbia, and other interested in primarily political solutions to the problem.  Serbia’s position was particularly precarious because it amounted, in 1913 and 1914, to a garrison state.  Without French support, Serbia could have no hope of maintaining a level of military readiness sufficient to deter, or even threaten, Austria-Hungary.

Nevertheless, Clark’s account sees Serbian nationalism as the first mover in a cycle that would eventually result in war.  The assassination of Franz Ferdinand destroyed the political balance in Vienna, eventually (after no small degree of internal dissension) resulting in the ultimatum and the decision for war.  Germany was concerned enough about the developing balance-of-power to support Austria, while neither France nor Britain could act decisively enough to restrain Russia, which felt its position in the region slipping.

The long-term viability of the Dual Monarchy looms large in Clark’s argument.  Clark grants that the empire had serious problems with its internal structure, and with the various nationalities within its borders. However, he argues that these problems had long afflicted not only Austria-Hungary, but also other polities, and that there was little reason to think that the empire was under looming threat of collapse. In particular, Clark argues that Franz Ferdinand himself understood the nationalities problem, and had a vision for reorganizing the empire around a triad of national collectives, which he hoped would prove more stable than the Dual Monarchy.

Clark points out that extant expectations regarding Austria’s instability drove destructive political dynamics around Europe. Skeptical about the long term survival of the Empire, Russia and Serbia became more risk-acceptant in their diplomatic and military policy.  France, the United Kingdom, and Italy saw little long-term benefit in taking risks to maintain a state that might not survive.  Concerns about collapse pushed Germany into unconditional support of Austrian foreign policy.

Were the contemporaries correct?  This is an exceedingly difficult question.  In light of what came in the wake of Austria-Hungary, a certain degree of imperial nostalgia is justified.  We can imagine (and Clark helps us imagine, through the figure of Franz Ferdinand) a set of institutions that could have weathered the nationalist storm, kept the empire together, and created a new future for Central Europe.  But then there were many, even within the empire, who were deeply antagonistic to the sorts of reforms that would be necessary for survival.  Maintaining the empire would have required more than sleepwalkers.  But on the other hand, the empire shambled along for much longer than many expected, in the end succumbing only to defeat in a systemic war.  In the absence of war, or in case of victory, it might well have shambled forward indefinitely.

One of Clark’s consistent themes is that trigger events tend to trigger things, and that we’re often a bit prosaic in suggesting that the war was inevitable, and that events would have followed a similar course had Princip never encountered the Archduke.  For one, a war that began over a different issue (a Bulgarian attack on Romania, or a Turkish collapse, or a colonial fracas in East Africa) would have produced a different operational situation than the one that planners faced in August, 1914.  The military plans of the great powers were inflexible, but not so inflexible as to be wholly immune to politics.  More importantly, a war that started in July 1916 would have seen marginal differences in the political and military capabilities of the combatants.  Given how closely fought both the Eastern and the Western Fronts were in 1914, these marginal differences might well have had consequential effect.

Most importantly, an alternative trigger would have affected the diplomatic and policy mechanisms of the European powers in different ways.  The war was about more than the Archduke, and even more than Serbia, but the commitments of the Great Powers were arranged in a unique configuration with respect to Balkan politics.  Shifting the timing or the nature of the event might have produced different coalitions in Vienna, St. Petersburg, Paris, and London, which might well have resulted in either a different war, or no war at all.

Clark doesn’t precisely provide a brief for the Central Powers, but it’s easy to see why many have interpreted the book in such terms.  Clark doesn’t share the view that either Austria-Hungary or Germany intended to use the crisis as a pretext for general war.  There were certainly many voices within the Austrian government that sought war, particularly within the military establishment.  The first effect of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was to remove one of the most important voices against war with Serbia.

For the German part, Clark suggests that Berlin was willing to risk war, but did not actively seek it out.  The German national security apparatus believed (as did the French) that Russian strength was growing, and that a war now would be preferable to a war in several years.  However, Clark argues that this merely made Germany risk-acceptant, rather than openly belligerent.  Germany would have seen a successful Austrian “punishment” of Serbia as a victory rather than a missed opportunity.  A Russian decision to go to war, conversely, was interpreted by the Germans as intractable belligerence.

Clark’s treatment of the British, French, and Russian decision-making processes is somewhat less complete than his discussion of Austria. Nevertheless, he gives a good account of the feel of the British, French, and Russian diplomatic systems. In every case, the diplomatic establishment was divided, with often nasty conflicts between factions who favored compromise and conflict.  The expressed attitude of the state often reflected these divisions, rather than a careful appraisal of the national interest, or a reasoned assessment of the risks of entanglement.

I was ready to be convinced by Clark’s case, but I’m not quite there.  Clark does excellent work with the Austrian records, but there’s enough leeway for interpretation to make compelling arguments in the other direction. I was more convinced by the account of Serbian politics and foreign policy, but even that left me uncertain of how Serbian behavior translated into systemic effect.  We have examples of Serbian bad behavior that don’t lead to great power war.

As some critics have noted, Clark gives relatively little attention to military positioning and operational deployment, instead concentrating on economic and diplomatic affairs.  In some areas this helps clarify issues; Clark explains that neither Russia nor Austria could maintain repeated partial or total mobilizations, because of the economically disruptive nature of such activities.  However, a better sense of how the policymakers appreciated the conjunction of military and diplomatic affairs might have helped illuminate some of the intrigue, particularly on the German side.  I also think that a fuller account of the military balance between Austria and Serbia could have clarified the decision-making that took place on either side, both with respect to Austrian caution and Serbian intransigence.

These concerns notwithstanding, Sleepwalkers is a remarkably fresh, absorbing look at the July Crisis.  It provides a great deal of necessary background on Balkan, Austrian, and Russian politics, as well as a glimpse into the foreign policy machinery of Britain and France.  Moreover, because Clark takes a point of view (however defensible), it’s quite an entertaining read.  Most anyone with a basic knowledge of the events of 1914 and an interest in the details of international diplomacy will find Sleepwalkers useful, whether or not they find themselves compelled by Clark’s case.

Foreign Entanglements: High Modernism in Westeros

[ 2 ] July 13, 2014 |

On this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, Charli Carpenter and I ranged wide.  Here’s a discussion of her latest book:

Airpower! Air Power?

[ 49 ] July 12, 2014 |

Two short pieces at today.  First, at National Interest I take a look at the likely equipment in a Sino-Vietnamese conflict:

In short, the Vietnam People’s Army has a history of success. Today, Sino-Vietnamese relations are again hitting a low point. The deployment of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam has only exacerbated tensions over control of islands in the South China Sea. Various Vietnamese politicians, including the late Vo Nguyen Giap, have warned about the threat of Chinese encroachment.

If war broke out, what weapons could Vietnam use? It turns out that China and Vietnam shop in the same place; most of the weapons that Vietnam would use against China are also in the hands of the People’s Liberation Army.  However, the implications of offensive and defensive employment vary greatly.  Here are five systems that Vietnam might use to good effect against the Chinese military.

And at War is Boring  I have some thoughts on the failed reconstruction of Iraqi military aviation:

Iraq is not a poor country, and it lives in a dangerous neighborhood. Baghdad needs military aviation, it can afford to buy and maintain advanced aircraft and it’s had an air force in the past. There’s no reason that Iraq should have gone for 11 years without usable, sophisticated military aviation.

The fault for this failure lies almost entirely with the United States.

Maritime Links

[ 3 ] July 10, 2014 |

A couple of links for your seafaring morning.  First, my latest at the Diplomat:

How should the United States manage its partnerships with global navies? What do these partnerships offer the United States? These questions have animated discussions of maritime strategy over the last decade, with strong partisans landing on different sides of each question.

Second, Lazarus at Information Dissemination has thoughts on resolving the Great Carrier Debate:

Significant changes in strategic geography now allow both variants to operate in the regions best suited to their capabilities. The history of carrier development in the period between the world wars and combat in the Second World War also point to geographic assignment of different carrier types. The U.S. can maintain its nearly all of its present carrier fleet, conduct a significant rebalance to the Pacific of capital ships, and still retain the ability to operate naval aviation in the western Eurasian littorals.


Youth Soccer

[ 66 ] July 9, 2014 |

photo1This year we’ve been cycling the girls through the YMCA youth sports leagues to give them a sense of what they might become interested in.  I served as the assistant coach of the Jazz, a 4-5 basketball team that managed, against all odds, to win a single game (4-2; every parent keeps score, even if there’s no official tally). This spring the girls played soccer for the Kixx, a team that did reasonably, if not fabulously, well. In one match, however, we faced a brutal opponent; a team which included four players who not only knew what they were doing, but were also interested in playing soccer.

We lost 28-1, including a merciful own goal from our opponent.  Yesterday, for obvious reasons, I was reminded of that match.

Isbell-Shires Do Springsteen

[ 10 ] July 7, 2014 |

Well, now this is kind of awesome.

Would love to see a full album collaboration between Shires and Isbell.

Six Degrees of Adolf Hitler

[ 18 ] July 7, 2014 |

Drezner shows how it’s done:

Third, the conference wasn’t an antiwar event, but rather an effort to expand the foreign policy conversation beyond the set of strategies proffered by, well, hawks such as Michael Goldfarb. I suppose Goldfarb’s relentlessly pro-war, pro-McCarthyite beliefs could lead him to believe that anyone who disagrees with him must be antiwar, but given that I spoke about the utility of military deterrence during my panel and didn’t get roundly booed, I suspect this is an exaggeration as well.  Indeed, there was nary a pacifist at the conference.

In later tweetsGoldfarb doubled down on his claim that Lind was a Holocaust denier despite his reporter’s documentation stating otherwise. Which leads to a few questions: Was Goldfarb simply too lazy to read Goodman’s story/read through to her source material/care about the actual facts, or did he knowingly lie in an effort to smear Duss and me? Based onmy prior reading of Goldfarb’s work, as well as other reporting about his techniques, I strongly suspect it’s the former. Indeed, it is possible that Goldfarb is the exemplar for Harry Frankfurt’s thesis that there is, in fact, something worse than lying — there’s simply not caring all that much about the truth one way or the other. So long as Goldfarb can get someone he dislikes within the orbit of a despicable statement, he can wave the banner of “Mission Accomplished” in successfully besmirching his target.  This is part and parcel of the conservative movement’s comparative advantage in trolling.

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