On what academic planet does a 14 page paper merit John Walsh an M.A.?

July 24, 2014
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

In this Feb. 11, 2014, file photo, Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., right, and his son Michael leave the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, after a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony with Vice President Biden.  We do not know whether Biden  and Walsh talked about plagiarism or not (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

As Jonathan Martin has reported in the New York Times, Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) has been a bad, bad, bad academic boy:

[O]ne of the highest-profile credentials of Mr. Walsh’s 33-year military career appears to have been improperly attained. An examination of the final paper required for Mr. Walsh’s master’s degree from the United States Army War College indicates the senator appropriated at least a quarter of his thesis on American Middle East policy from other authors’ works, with no attribution.

Mr. Walsh completed the paper, what the War College calls a “strategy research project,” to earn his degree in 2007, when he was 46. The sources of the material he presents as his own include academic papers, policy journal essays and books that are almost all available online.

Most strikingly, the six recommendations Mr. Walsh laid out at the conclusion of his 14-page paper, titled “The Case for Democracy as a Long Term National Strategy,” are taken nearly word-for-word without attribution from a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace document on the same topic.

The Times provides some pretty graphic evidence of the plagiarism.

Walsh’s responses to these allegations have been… not good.  He initially denied the accusation of plagiariam to Martin, stating, “I didn’t do anything intentional here.”  In follow-up comments to the AP, Walsh said, “I don’t want to blame my mistake on PTSD,” and then proceeds to do that very thing.

In follow-up stories, David Weigel notes the sadness this will cause in Democratic Party circles, while Martin and Nick Corasaniti note the sadness this news is generating at the War College.  But I’d like to focus on something that both Weigel and Josh Barro brought up on Twitter Wednesday:

It’s worse than that, actually.  Having read Walsh’s thesis final paper, it’s not just that it’s only 14 pages of text; it’s that even if you ignore the plagiarism, it’s a pretty bad 14 pages.  The thesis paper is ostensibly about whether the United States should prioritize democracy promotion in U.S. grand strategy.  If I was supervising this thesis final paper — and I’ve supervised a fair number for my day job — then this is what I’d have e-mailed Walsh if he’d handed this in to me:

John, this is an intriguing topic, and you’ve got the bare bones of an interesting thesis final paper topic here, but you’re going to need to do a lot more work before handing in the final draft.  Your definition of democracy is incomplete, without any discussion of whether it’s democracies or liberal democracies that matter.  The literature review is thin and out of date.  You do not mention the most damning pushback in the literature against your thesis, which is Ed Mansfield and Jack Snyder’s argument that democratizing states are the most war-prone, and therefore that a push for democratization would destabilize a vital strategic area for the United States.  If Mansfield and Snyder are correct, then won’t your strategy create significant short-to-medium term costs?  And if that’s the case, how sustainable is this strategy?  Most important, however, your empirics are very thin.  You need more data, or more cases, where the U.S. has pushed for democratization to examine the pros and cons.  As it stands, your conclusions are untethered from the rest of this draft.   For your next draft, I’ll want to see a much fuller discussion of the literature, at least one of two cases to highlight the ways in which this strategy could harm or help the United States, and a much tighter linkage between your arguments and your policy recommendations.

Even if I didn’t detect the plagiarism, there is no way this passes muster for a M.A. thesis final paper.  No. Way.  So here’s my question to the Army War College, an institution that I have heretofore admired greatly — how in the hell did this piece of s**t result in the awarding of an M.A. degree?

CORRECTION: My previous version of this story incorrectly called Walsh’s work a “thesis.” It was an independent study paper that was Walsh’s final requirement for receiving the M.A. degree, not a thesis.  I apologize for the mistake.

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Sean M. Lynn-Jones · July 24, 2014