Sebastian Gorka has an interesting job in the White House. He is a self-proclaimed “irregular warfare strategist,” so one might think he would be working at the National Security Council. As it turns out, he’s not, but rather a deputy to strategist Stephen K. Bannon and part of his Strategic Initiatives Group. He believes that conventional counterterrorism experts have underestimated the ideological component of the war on terrorism, and that the key to defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is identifying the enemy as radical Islamic terrorism.
Gorka’s main job seems to have been to aggressively defend the Trump White House’s ham-handed immigration order in the media. According to the Wall Street Journal, he was one of the few officials to review it before Trump signed it. White House flack is certainly a semi-honorable profession, but I’m worried that the stress might be getting to him. Newsweek’s Jeff Stein reports that Gorka cold-called Michael S. Smith, a counterterrorism expert who has been critical of Gorka on Twitter. This part of the story jumped out at me:
“I’ve never met you and I’ve never attacked you,” he said to Smith, his voice rising in frustration and anger. “And your Twitter feed is an incessant berating of my professional acumen. Put yourself in my shoes, Mr. Smith. Have you done that? How would you like it if someone you’ve never met, daily and professionally attacked you?”
“Happens all the time,” Smith responded. Generally speaking, academics and journalists laboring in the field of public policy expect to be criticized for their views.
“It’s not happened to me,” Gorka said, “I can tell you. Maybe you can show me some trick on how you deal with it. This is the first time ever.”
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is reasonably well-versed in the world of academia and public policy, and feels some small measure of sympathy toward Gorka. So, Seb — can I call you Seb? — here are some useful tricks for you to navigate this recent upsurge in criticism:
1) Develop a thicker skin. I can get why you’re upset. If Google Scholar is any guide, there’s a good reason you never had to deal with criticism from strangers. Until you took a position with the White House, no one had bothered to take your work seriously.
In conversations with Business Insider, several national-security experts questioned Gorka’s credibility in their field, saying he is often dismissed as an outspoken conservative pundit who lacks the chops to serve in the highest levels of the White House advising on national-security policy.
Politico offered a similar tale:
Several experts interviewed by POLITICO puzzled over the gap between the numerous military academic credentials listed by Gorka — a political science Ph.D. who unfailingly uses the title “Dr.” — and their unfamiliarity with his work and views.
“When I first encountered his name during the transition, I did a triple-take. I’ve been in counterterrorism since 1998, and I thought I knew everyone. But I’d never heard his name and couldn’t recall anything he’d written or said,” said Daniel Benjamin, who served as counterterrorism coordinator under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Pro tip: This is a good thing! Criticism happens only when people are taking you seriously. Take this as a sign of recognition that you actually wield some influence over foreign affairs.
This also means that plenty of people will now criticize you without having ever met or conversed with you. Hey, I’m doing that right now! As a public official and published author, it is possible to look at what you’ve said in print and interviews and respond to it. That’s kind of the norm. So get used to it.
Also, as a general rule, don’t call every national security professional who criticizes you. First, it’s way too long of a list. Second, this is life in the big city — if you can’t take expert criticism, then stop proclaiming that you’re an expert. If you can’t hack it, I’m sure there’s some wealthy benefactor who would endow another chair for you somewhere.
2) Stop constantly saying you’re a PhD. Yeah, you have a PhD. But let’s be honest here, having read parts of your dissertation, it’s not much of a PhD. The editor of International Studies Quarterly read it more carefully than I have, and it doesn’t seem as though he was all that impressed by it:
I would not characterize it as a work of scholarship. I am confident that it would not earn him a doctorate at any reputable academic department in the United States. Indeed, it would be unacceptable as an undergraduate thesis for the Department of Government or the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. My guess is that Gorka wanted to call himself “Doctor,” and his PhD-granting institution was happy to oblige.
If this had been submitted for a Fletcher PhD, there’s not much of a chance I would have signed off on it either.
Nonetheless, you list your PhD in your Twitter bio as though it’s a big deal, despite the fact that D.C. is drowning in PhDs more prestigious than yours. Pro tip: People inside the Beltway who put “PhD” after their name are like the people who publish relationship advice books and put “PhD” on the cover. It’s a surefire sign that you’re overcompensating.
If you want to be called “Dr. Gorka” in media interviews, sure, I get that. But bragging about your PhD when it reads like a glorified undergrad thesis with fancy Venn diagrams is a loser move. Don’t do it. Oh, and also …
3) Stop talking to the media. Credit where it’s due: You’re a Trump White House official who’s willing to go on record with the media, which makes you better than 95 percent of your colleagues. As the New York Times’ Jacey Fortin explains:
Since President Trump appointed Sebastian Gorka last month as a deputy assistant, Mr. Gorka has been an increasingly visible defender of the administration.
He has spoken out in favor of the targeted travel ban, which spurred mass protests and was then blocked by federal courts. He suggested in a recent interview with The Hill that the CNN anchor Jake Tapper was sexist for aggressively questioning the Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. He has also insisted that media reports of turmoil in the White House bear “almost no resemblance to reality.”
Mr. Gorka came out swinging again on Thursday, after Mr. Trump’s contentious news conference in which he excoriated the media. Asked by Evan Davis of the BBC to assess Mr. Trump’s appearance, Mr. Gorka repeatedly declared the president’s performance “fabulous.”
The problem is that you’ve also cooperated with profiles of you in the Washington Post, Politico and Wall Street Journal at the same time that you’re claiming 80 percent of the reportage is fallacious. If you don’t want to see criticism of you and your work, you’re going to have to stop being the point person for the administration’s super-problematic efforts on counterterrorism, think harder about whether the negative blowback has been worth it, and do better next time.
By the way, you explicitly told The Post’s Greg Jaffe that you didn’t care what academics said:
Gorka’s former supervisors pushed him to incorporate other perspectives on Islam and publish in peer-reviewed journals where his ideas would be challenged and perhaps tempered, Bell said.
But Gorka insisted that he wasn’t interested in that kind of scholarship.
“What I care about is if somebody in the field is reading my article,” he said. “I see myself as somebody who supports the bravest of the brave — the warfighter. Publish or be damned? I’ll be damned, thank you very much.”
Well, you’ve gotten your wish, because now you’re being damned. So either put up or shut up. And if you want to put up, then …
4) Read and understand other people’s work. It’s difficult to be an expert on radical Islamic terrorism if you don’t read Arabic and have never done fieldwork in an Arab country, but it’s not impossible. But if you also display ignorance of other experts on the subject, that’s your third strike. Your dissertation was curiously light on citations, and your subsequent work even more so. And it sure seems as though when you’re asked to display your bona fides on counterterrorism, you reject the very premise of “address[ing] this level of granularity.”
That’s not a good look. So maybe read a little more about the work you seem so eager to disparage in interviews. As an academic, I can assure you that informed attacks will work much better than uninformed spin.
Oh, and by the way, you say you’re interested in writing for the warfighter. Just FYI, the new national security adviser is a warfighter’s warfighter, and it appears as though he told his NSC staff something diametrically at odds with your theory of counterterrorism:
President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.
The adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting.
That is a repudiation of the language regularly used by both the president and General McMaster’s predecessor, Michael T. Flynn.
Psst… this is a repudiation of your arguments as well.
5) Maybe go away forever. If you can’t follow the advice above, maybe life in official Washington isn’t for you. Maybe you should consider following Monica Crowley‘s path away from the limelight.
If you think the criticism to date has been bad, just wait. The public calumny you’ve received so far is nothing compared to the whirlwind that will arrive when there’s a monumental national security screw-up. And based on how you and your boss have performed in the first month of the administration, and the number of provocations you and your bosses have managed to throw down in just the first month of the administration, that whirlwind is coming. As someone who seems to have pursued political ambitions in three countries, surely you already have a fourth country prepped as a fail-safe option.