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Sebastian Gorka’s Dissertation, Part I

[ 99 ] February 25, 2017 |
Seriously

This is real. This is an actual diagram from Gorka’s (2007, 166) dissertation. I will discuss it in a later post.

We should exercise caution when evaluating dissertations. Dissertations are not works of scientific perfection. I finished mine in a marathon month, as I was pushing the deadline for retaining my position at Georgetown. Even the substantially revised book that emerged from contains a handful of truly embarrassing historical errors. In other words, I think it would be grossly unfair to reduce Gorka to his dissertation, or to use it as evidence that he is unqualified for his position. Moreover, I concentrated in the study of international security. I know a bit about the intersection between great-power politics and transnational religious movements. Still, I am not a terrorism expert. I am certainly not an expert on Islam. And I am far from an expert on Islamic terrorism.

Nonetheless, I did read the dissertation last night. Members of the Lawyers, Guns and Money community have asked for my opinion. 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.

Despite its overwrought title and often ponderous prose, the dissertation starts with a rather straightforward claim. There are two “sub-divisions of terrorist, the Rational and and Pragmatic and the Irrational, or Transcendental Terrorist.” The former seek a “fundamentally feasible and realistic goal”—such as national independence or autonomy—and hence “there is the possibility for a political or diplomatic solution to the root grievance.” The latter, however, “has as his end goal the realisation of a state-of-affairs that is not obviously feasible or realistic and which is completely antithetic to the opposing government. There is no possibility for a political resolution or even negotiations” (2007, 12).

In November 2007, when Gorka finished his dissertation, this was already a well-established line of argument. Scholars were debating the degree that the latter characterization applied to movements such as Al Qaeda, and bringing multifaceted evidence to bear on the subject.Thus, there was certainly room for an intervention that moved the ball forward. But that would require a dissertation with discipline and focus. This is not such a dissertation.

That becomes clear on the next page, where Gorka (2007, 13) introduces four hypotheses and ways that he will validate those hypotheses. They are:

1. Irrational terrorist actors have become more numerous since the cessation of the Cold War
2. Governments are sorely limited in the selection of tools that can be used in the face of such actors
3. The Irrational or Transcendentally informed terrorist represents a wholly different category of threat, since due to the fact that he is completely uninterested in political resolution, he can justify the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
4. Osama bin Laden typifies the new threat and poses a challenge which we cannot adequately deal with given existing Westphalian state structures and national security divisions of labour.

The evidence comes from:

a) How national security has evolved as a function of the modern nation- state.
b) What the difference is between the geostrategic environments of the Cold War and the post-September 11th 2001 state-of-affairs.
c) Who Osama bin Laden is and how novel an organisation al Qaeda is and,
d) What should be done to reform Westphalian security architectures so as to make them applicable to the new threat environment that has been shaped by the rise of the Irrational/Transcendental Actor and the globalisation of security.

If you wonder how Gorka can accomplish these tasks in 240 pages, the answer is that he can’t. He makes little effort to consider alternative explanations, use anything resembling a proper methodology, adequately source key claims, cite or take seriously more than a smattering of scholarly works, or even sufficiently develop lines of thought. Parts of the dissertation come across as filler. Perhaps they are. Toward the end of the piece, he dumps about eight pages of “potential theories or doctrines that have been penned in an attempt to make the current strategic environment more understandable” (page 167ff). He also used the same text in a September 2007 co-authored survey for the Council on Emerging National Security Affairs (CENA), which is no longer online.

Regardless, the bulk of the dissertation summary—its first part—consists of boilerplate within the realm of conventional wisdom. Gorka argues that the end of the Cold War made the international security environment more complex and the identification of the proper hierarchy of threats more challenging (2007,  7-8), he offers a fairly standard definition of terrorism (sourced exclusively to “discussions” with “Dr. Jenkins“) and defends restricting the term “terrorist” to non-state actors (2007, 11).

The introduction continues apace. He writes that “there has been a resurgence in terrorism that is not purely political in nature” and that the Aum Shinrikyo 1995 gas attacks, along with Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, “together… describe a proto-trend that is supported by quantitative statistics pertaining to terror attacks in the last decade” (2007, 15-16). The only such statistics offered appear in Appendix I, which uses US Department of State data for 1993-2003. This obviously does not cover the “last decade”—recall that the dissertation was deposited in 2007. The data boils down to a rather crude average of number of death per attack.

Why does the”last decade” ends with 2003? The relevant sections are—as best I can tell—recycled from a paper Gorka first wrote in 2003, and come from what I think is a 2004 version. Regardless, this is a good example of how shoddy the scholarship is. Gorka wants to claim that there’s something radically different about contemporary terrorism from that of, say, the classic terrorism of the 1970s. So he needs to extend the data back well beyond 1993. That is, we need to actually compare the different waves. It would also require some basic statistical work that looks at regions and countries, the effects of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, how much the average is driven by outliers, and that kind of thing. It’s hard not to read this section and hear Gorka insisting on “empirical evidence” in his phone call to Smith.

I’m only about 17 pages in, and there’s a lot more to talk about, including some parts that seem relevant to Gorka’s worldview. Stay tuned for Part II.

A warning, though: working through it this way is quite a slog, and I’m not sure that I have the energy to blog the whole way through.

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  1. LosGatosCA says:

    So advanced, it’s simple.

    Like the Laugher Curve.

  2. Q.E.Dumbass says:

    OT: Someone posted in one of the McCarthy threads a Nation article written by Patrick Lawrence Smith intimating that Donald was the victim of a prospective Deep State coup. Could you do a post on that?

    Also: Is it just me, or has Salon not had any foreign affairs columnists who aren’t or didn’t become terrible people?

  3. busker type says:

    I first heard Gorka on the radio and was instantly struck by how cartoonishly evil he sounded… he sounds like a caricature of a villain from a batman cartoon, but with a weird upperclass british/Hungarian accent. It’s crazy! Surprised I haven’t seen more people remark on this.

  4. efgoldman says:

    Thank you for reading it so I didn’t have to, except for the paragraph on which many of us commented last night.
    I am not an academic by any stretch of the imagination. That so many of you have to read and pass judgement on so much dreck gives me a newfound respect for your patience.

  5. Chetsky says:

    The introduction continues apace. He writes that “there has been a resurgence in terrorism that is not purely political in nature” [….] Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks,

    Lolwut! Sebastian, don’t DO that while I’m drinking Diet Coke, you could permanently damage my sinuses!

    The Siege of Beirut

    “God knows it did not cross our minds to attack the Towers, but after the situation became unbearable—and we witnessed the injustice and tyranny of the American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon—I thought about it. And the events that affected me directly were those of 1982 and the events that followed—when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, helped by the U.S. Sixth Fleet. As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the unjust the same way: to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we were tasting and to stop killing our children and women.”

    — Osama bin Laden, 2004

    How is this not politically motivated? And it sure seemed to me like bin Laden had his head screwed on straight about the strategy. And he was right — we DID score a gynormous own-goal (Tom Friedman’s “pick a country in the middle east and deck ’em, just to show we’re the biggest bully on the block”).

    • LosGatosCA says:

      You are reading everything wrong.

      I can’t get bogged down in the details, trust me on this.

    • ASV says:

      I wonder how this idea can be squared with the idea that Islam is actually not a religion, but in fact a political ideology. I bet they have a way!

    • nasser says:

      To say that terrorism is not politically motivated has always struck me as odd. It’s a bit like squaring a circle. So people are using terror and it’s not to achieve a political aim? Many different definitions include political aims.

    • dnexon says:

      If I have the energy, I’ll try to tackle this claim as he develops it. I don’t get a sense that there’s any analytically robust notion of “political” here. It ties back to this idea that violence-wielding Islamic jihadists of a certain type are just irrational fanatics with objectives that make negotiation impossible. They want total world transformation. This is, needless to say, something of a gross simplification.

      • I’m no expert, but it seems to me that while fanaticism tends to be a feature of religious-motivated terrorism, it also tends to be a feature of much if not most of the secular ideology- motivated terrorism out there as well. After all, most of what is generally spoken of as “terrorism” is the sort of thing that only someone strongly motivated in their politics (and believing mass murder or terror to be an appropriate means of furthering political goals) would willingly undertake.

        As well as the fanaticism that motivates the acts themselves, we can, if we want to consider the possibilities of future coexistence, look at how extreme the underlying ideology really is. At their extremes, ideologies scorn any talk of peaceful coexistance or compromise with non-believers, at least rhetorically. Yet if we look at jihadist groups, many of those have allied themselves with the United States at one time or another. I have seen it said that Islamic State ideology is unable to even envisage the possibility of an Islamic State operating within an international system it does not dominate, but I do not know enough about them to say that that is the case.

        • I haven’t studied it in awhile, but there are a large number of scholars who believe that even supposedly religious terrorism isn’t ultimately motivated much by religion. A lot of what causes terrorism to develop seems to be a mixture of culture and external conditions. But, like I said, it’s been awhile since I last studied it, so I’m fuzzy on some of the details.

  6. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    “A warning, though: working through it this way is quite a slog, and I’m not sure that I have the energy to blog the whole way through.”

    If you get stuck at the “40 page long diatribe quoted from Atlas Shrugged” and call it quits at that point, we’ll completely understand.

    “the dissertation was deposited in 2007″

    Deposited? Squeezed out? Spewed forth? Dropped with a dull, sickening thud? Splatted upon the floor? Smeared on the walls of an ivory tower?

    Your restraint in choice of verb is impressive.

    • Murc says:

      Your restraint in choice of verb is impressive.

      It isn’t. Deposited is a technical term re: dissertations.

      • Lee Rudolph says:

        And geological formations!

        I was originally going to reply to dnexon’s “working through it this way is quite a slog, and I’m not sure that I have the energy to blog the whole way through” that the process suggests live-blogging the Great Boston Molasses Flood, but clearly the apter comparison is to the Deposition of the Burgess Shale.

        Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this installment, but I’m the kind of guy who reads live-blogs only after they’re safely dead the next day or week. And this isn’t going to be a one-day (one-week, one-month?) project…

    • Hogan says:

      Seriously. Don’t hurt yourself.

  7. Murc says:

    Hoorays!

    I’m curious, Dan, did submitting this thing to plagiarism sites bear any fruit?

    • LosGatosCA says:

      So far we have 666 hits on the diagram from the Sesame Street site.

      A typical diagram shows that the scale has been changed from Lots of Chocolate chips to No Chocolate chips and the ellipse has been changed from a likeness of the Cookie Monster.

  8. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I love dissertation reviews. I hope this becomes a regular feature of the blog.

    • The Lorax says:

      a) JOtto is back!
      b) I agree.
      c) I’ve seen that chart passed around. Is there any plausible interpretation of the thing?

      • dnexon says:

        Probably from me. I’ve been tweeting and facebooking about it.

        In short, terrorism is somewhere between peacekeeping and thermonuclear war in terms of “scales of violence.” The arrows and question marks are anyone’s guess. So is the reason why terrorism is written (off-center) in an oval. I’ve suggested he could have communicated equivalent information by replacing the whole diagram with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

        • dnexon says:

          The whole dissertation has a “diagrams are social science!” vibe. Some of the appendixes are diagrams from other scholars’ work. I find this annoying, because I’m big on diagrams. But I have the decency to make most of them in an appropriate application.

          Of course, the main reason I find this annoying is because a lot of people put real work into their dissertations. Our committees exercise some level of quality control.

    • efgoldman says:

      I hope this becomes a regular feature of the blog.

      Oh, Jotto. FSM save us. Or kill us, one.

      As I’ve said before, I’m not an academic and I never sent to grad school, but it sure looks to me that theses and dissertations are refuges for really bad, awful writers.

      • Denverite says:

        My favorite academic genre is dissertations-turned-into-books-where-the-editor-lost-interest-halfway-through.

        My favorite entry in that genre is a book from a reasonably respectable press that within the first three pages called Hume “English” and explained that each of the following five chapters would address one of five major points. There were only four other chapters. Virtually every page contained a sentence that was at least 150 words long.

          • Denverite says:

            The real funny part is that the author was an outside reviewer on a friend’s manuscript and called it “too compendious and breviloquent.” Once I looked up what those words mean it gave me a hearty chuckle.

        • Lurker says:

          Excuse me? What is the difference between a dissertation and a book? Here in Finland, it often happens that dissertations on topics of popular interest are published as commercial books. For example, when the social democratic politician Lasse Lehtinen got a PhD, his history dissertation on the relations between Urho Kekkonen and the Finnish Social Democratic Party in 1944-81 was a best-seller. And the front page included the usual formula: “printed with the due permission to be defended publicly” in such-and-such lecture room on … at noon. Usually, it is history dissertations that get this treatment, as they may get a wide readership. (BTW, Lehtinen’s dissertation was a great example of end-career Ph.D: a retired politician and novelist writing a piece of research on a topic he is supremely well acquainted with.)

          And even my dissertation is a book. You can go and buy it, although only from my university, and receive an actual printed book from the original print run. The price is, if I remember correctly, some 100 euros.

      • Dudefella says:

        I dipped a foot into academia before going to law school (stuck with a terminal Master’s rather than going for the doctorate). I don’t think there’s anything unique to academics that renders them bad writers. Nor do I think that bad writers are more likely to become academics than are good writers.

        I think rather that there are more bad writers than good writers, period. But take a bad writer and let them think that their writing is more sophisticated for larding it with jargon or $5 words, and you get a death march set to paper.

        The same is true of the law, of course. Most lawyers write poorly, which is a shame since so much of the job is written.

        • sonamib says:

          There is an academic writing style, and it dictates the use of dry, impersonal sentences. Even if the person writes well (no awkward sentences, ideas flow smoothly through the text), the result is boring and a slog to go through.

          • This may actually be the primary reason I opted not to get a master’s or doctorate. Orwell pointed out how bad most academic writing was in “Politics and the English Language”, and the problem hasn’t improved at all since he published the essay. I don’t mind reading or writing a lot, but most of the texts are just a slog to get through, and it’s not because of the ideas they contain, but because of the presentation thereof. The more cynical part of me suspects that this writing style may be deliberately intended to make it inaccessible to the layperson.

    • Warren Terra says:

      Jotto! I haven’t seen you here in weeks or months! Not since before Trump’s (first?) Travel Ban Executive Order! I know that there was some backlash in affected countries – I hope your visa status to teach in Kurdistan (you’re still in Kurdistan?) wasn’t affected!

    • Vance Maverick says:

      Welcome back!

      Also nice in this comments thread: no urd.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      Hi, Otto! Nice to see you.

  9. Downpuppy says:

    I read a fair amount. It seemed at the level of a 240 page David Brooks column, with some really bad writing & a lot of superficial summary. The first claim

    “my conclusion will be that the existing heirarchical nation-state structures which were created as a byproduct of the estabishment of the modern nation-state must be flattened and made inter-departmental (Super Purple)” sounds at first like utter bull, but when you get to the bottom (page 198) it’s much worse : Total unified control of the Security State.

    Not scary at all, especially with the current pros in charge!

  10. NewishLawyer says:

    OT but Perez is the DNC chair.

    • vic rattlehead says:

      Triumph of the NEOLIBERALS!

      In all seriousness, I have nothing against Keith Ellison but I am happy Tom Perez won. Especially given his experience on voting rights, which is vitally important now more than ever. Not that DNC chair has remotely the same power as head of the DOJ Civil Rights Division, but the guy knows the score and he has experience with something that the Sessions DOJ is going to come after hard.

      And I think the headlines I’ve seen are pretty stupid (CNN and the Times alerts I got this afternoon). Perez beats liberal Keith Ellison. Blow to the liberal wing of the party? Because Perez isn’t liberal? Ok. We’ve been over this 1001 times here but oy vey.

      • I’m mildly happy with this because it means Ellison stays as a rather badass legislator, but I would also have been mildly happy with Ellison because having a progressive African-American Muslim as the chair of the party would also have been nice. I can’t really say either of them was vastly more qualified for the position than the other, or had vastly better politics than the other, so I had no preference there, and I’m not sure whether appeasing the Bernouts by appointing Ellison would have been a net good for the party, so I had no preference there either. The ideal outcome would have been what someone suggested in an earlier thread, of having them share the chairmanship, but either of them will probably be capable in the position, and I’m mostly just glad that this largely irrelevant race is over and we can hopefully start organising now. You’re also correct that Perez’ experience with voting rights will be a net plus.

        And yeah, the media coverage is super dumb.

        • Origami Isopod says:

          Yeah, I think either of them would have been fine. Huge tempest in a teapot, of major importance to Greenwaldians, maybe a few dozen Democrats, and absolutely nobody else.

      • wjts says:

        I started out lean-Ellison, but lately I’ve been thinking it might be better for him to stay in Congress and let the prominent liberal Democrat without a current job take the DNC gig.

    • wjts says:

      Time to start relitigating the DNC chair election!

  11. Thermonuclear war

    A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

    (Also, thanks for taking the slog through this so we don’t have to, Daniel. And welcome back, Jotto.)

    • Denverite says:

      I haven’t seen that is ages. I might have my kids watch it tonight. Seems appropriate and all.

      • It probably hasn’t been timelier at any point since the breakup of the Soviet Union. I need to revisit Dr. Strangelove too.

        • Denverite says:

          I’ve always been meh on Dr. Strangelove. It seems like it should be funnier than it is.

          • I’ve always found it hilarious, but Peter Sellers’ humour is the sort of thing that either works for you or it doesn’t, and since he’s such a major part of the film (well, three major parts, to be precise), how much you enjoy it depends in large part upon how much you enjoy his work. The satire of anti-Communist hysteria is spot-on, though. I still quote General Ripper all the time when people go full-on McCarthyist.

            That said, I do wonder if I’d find it as funny rewatching it today. Parts of it may hit too close to reality to be funny. I have the same problem with some Onion articles lately. A parallel problem to this is probably a large part of the reason I’ve had trouble getting through the second season of The Man in the High Castle. It feels a lot less like an alternate history now that the shitgibbon is the president-asterisk.

            • Origami Isopod says:

              I’ve seen Dr. Strangelove once, and some years ago at that, but I think it might not be as uncomfortable to watch as MitHC because there are fewer parallels to politics as they are right now.

              • True. Man in the High Castle feels like prophecy all the way through, while Dr. Strangelove only does some of the time.

                • vic rattlehead says:

                  Yeah I would avoid MIHTC if you’re in a bad headspace right now. I watched the second season when it came out and it didn’t really affect me too much since I was still feeling pretty numb. But I don’t think I could handle it right now. I generally don’t have a problem with stereotypically “depressing” stuff. In perhaps a sick way I generally find that stuff life-affirming. But no political stuff (I will be watching House of Cards when it drops since it is so cartoonish. I hate it so much I love it).

          • LosGatosCA says:

            Well, I’ve always respected your football savvy, anyway.

          • vic rattlehead says:

            Wow. Denverite is dead to me.

    • Joe_JP says:

      “Sebastian Gorka” sounds like a character from the film of that sort or maybe a Scarecrow and Mrs. King episode.

  12. N__B says:

    If it was so important for Gorka to be called “Doctor” couldn’t he have just watched some hospital-themed porn like everyone else does?

  13. No Longer Middle Aged Man says:

    My dissertation was pretty good, if I do say so myself, but there’s a ton in that I wish I’d done better. My excuses are first time out and wanting oh so desperately to be done.

    From dnexon’s descriptions and the excerpts posted, this reads like a very long seminar paper or essay, minus normal academic things like careful citations, trying to pass itself off as something more via the pretension of positing hypotheses without actually examining them systematically or doing any individual research. The hypotheses themselves seem rather flaccid — they’re more debating points than research questions.

    I used to do executive education programs in Germany for a European consulting firm. Every so often one of the consultants would tell me that he was taking a one year leave to go back to school to get his doctorate. This “dissertation” sounds like the product of one of those one year programs: make assertions or take a point of view and build an argument to defend it. Which is fine but it’s not a piece of original research which is what imho an dissertation should be and a PhD should require.

    The horrible writing?. Enh, maybe translated from Hungarian but in any case there’s plenty of horrible writing in USA social sciences and humanities research, even beyond the specialized terminology (aka jargon) that only a specialist can understand.

    I love diagrams and schematics too but I have to be charitable on that point because not all of mine are winners either.

    • Warren Terra says:

      Gorka is a native English speaker – born in the UK, got his undergrad degree there – and his Hungarian graduate alma mater boasts of instruction in three languages, including English. I assume his thesis isn’t a bad translation.

  14. Warren Terra says:

    Thanks again for doing this.

    I’m still amazed by that gem you put in comments last night, where Gorka’s PhD dissertation says something like “Muslims aren’t suited to democracy (citation: I claim to have had a chat with a noted Hungarian scholar of Islam)”.

    Even assuming that the one person Gorka names is a halfway respectable scholar of Islam, that would be beyond absurd as sourcing.

  15. Calming Influence says:

    Sure, your dissertation is very often something you desperately want to remain generally unread. Much leeway given by those who have traveled that road. And mine was in the biological sciences, so I wouldn’t be the best judge of a social science dissertation.

    But “diagram 9”, above? Dear me…

    • sigaba says:

      “In figure 11 we see a graphic representation of Clue with regard to the prior, Me. Distance in time and space are represented in the horizontal, and idiocy as a function of Me is in the vertical. We see as Me increases idiocy increases quadratically, and the negative affinity to Clue grows. Even under normal conditions and making the standard assumptions, Clue cannot be said to be even remotely correlated to Me.”

  16. […] my prior post, I tried to make clear that you don’t need to get very far—less than twenty pages, in […]

  17. Frank Wilhoit says:

    “…the Irrational, or Transcendental Terrorist…has as his end goal the realisation of a state-of-affairs that is not obviously feasible or realistic and which is completely antithetic to the opposing government. There is no possibility for a political resolution or even negotiations.”

    So, Republicans, then.

  18. […] of material cut and pasted from prior work. In addition to the piece that I mentioned in my first post, Gorka also recycled text from a Human Events article that he co-authored with his wife. The […]

  19. […] in the Trump White House who have little actual experience in either academia or policy work: See Gorka, Sebastian). So…what’s his argument? In this post, I will examine and dismantle his argument. In a […]

  20. […] for himself by: disagreeing with facts, proving he will say anything for money, writing a pretty kick ass dissertation that would give Sokal a run for his […]

  21. […] Sebastian Gorka’s Dissertation, Part I […]

  22. […] an associate professor of International Security at Georgetown University, wrote in a series of blog posts that the dissertation would not have been accepted in an American undergraduate program. “I […]

  23. […] an associate professor of International Security at Georgetown University, wrote in a series of blog posts that the dissertation would not have been accepted in an American undergraduate program. […]

  24. […] an associate professor of International Security at Georgetown University, wrote in a series of blog posts that the dissertation would not have been accepted in an American undergraduate program. “I […]

  25. […] an associate professor of International Security at Georgetown University, wrote in a series of blog posts that the dissertation would not have been accepted in an American undergraduate program. “I […]

  26. […] an associate professor of International Security at Georgetown University, wrote in a series of blog posts that the dissertation would not have been accepted in an American undergraduate program. […]

  27. […] an associate professor of International Security at Georgetown University, wrote in a series of blog posts that the dissertation would not have been accepted in an American undergraduate program. “I […]

  28. […] an associate professor of International Security at Georgetown University, wrote in a series of blog posts that the dissertation would not have been accepted in an American undergraduate program. […]

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