Over the past year, there’s been a flap over a course that was taught at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA, in which an Army lieutenant colonel (with no background in Islamic studies) urged “total war” against Islam. The story was broken by Wired’s “Danger Room,” which showed slides from the course advocating the ditching of the Geneva Conventions and going after civilian populations in the Middle East using Hiroshima or Dresden as the models for such attacks. It was, of course, soon picked up in the international press.
The Joint Staff has since concluded its investigation into the “elective” course at the JFSC, and clearly, it was not happy with what it found. But how did this happen? How could people without any expertise be teaching such subjects for the military?
I found all this especially puzzling, because I come from a scholarly tribe — professional Soviet experts — who were well-funded and deeply involved in government policy for over 40 years. Their work may not always have been the best, but there was at least real education and expertise being brought to bear on the problem.
Since I am not an expert on that region, or on counter-terrorism operations, I asked my friend and colleague, John Schindler, an historian, author, and former National Security Agency officer who is well-known to readers of the War Room, to comment on the JFSC scandal and the issue of counter-terrorism studies in PME.
His answer is below (and as always, John, like the rest of us, speaks only for himself and does not represent the views of the War College or the U.S. government).
THE JFSC ISLAM COURSE: WHAT HAPPENED? WHY?
John R. Schindler
After looking at the problem — which was raised by military officers who had taken the course — at the Joint Forces Staff College (JFSC) in Norfolk, VA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff has concluded that there is a larger issue with poor education about Islam inside U.S. Professional Military Education (PME). This, according to the report, is attributable to “institutional failures in oversight and judgment.”
This ruling , which applies to all PME but focuses particularly JFSC, on seems fair – and will lead to reforms, one hopes – yet it still doesn’t zero in on the bigger question: How did PME faculty without bona fide scholarly backgrounds in complex issues like Islamic politics and theology manage to pass themselves off as experts in such matters?
As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s critical that the Defense Department, given the Pentagon’s occasional proclivity to overreaction, not simply ban discussion of Islamism as a political challenge; that really would be a cure worse than the original malady. But in order to get this important matter right, we must first understand what went so wrong in recent years.
The answer, to which the JCS study only alludes, cannot be considered surprising to anyone familiar with our war and staff colleges. At JFSC — which is frankly an institution on the lowers rungs of PME — an Army lieutenant colonel took it upon himself to teach an elective on Islam. This devolved into discussions of how to solve the “problem” of Islam via nuclear weapons against cities.
This is more than just one officer undertaking an elective he knew little about. It reflects, in microcosm, a problem at all our PME institutions, which is that the teaching of electives is in the hands of individuals who sometimes have more passion for a topic than knowledge. The really disturbing question is whether there was anyone at at JFSC competent to judge if this Army officer was capable of teaching a graduate-level course on Islam.
To be fair to PME (and to answer Tom’s question), oft-cited analogies with Soviet Studies in the 1950s fail us here because of the way that Islam and the Middle East are generally taught in American higher education.
[Note from Tom: readers can find an excellent history of the government’s early funding of Soviet studies here.]
It’s not a figment of the right-wing imagination that the Middle East Studies Association, the lead professional organization on the region, is deeply mired in the scholarly babble of postmodern discourses; more to the point, many of its members really are reflexively and ideologically hostile to DoD and U.S. policies and the Middle East.
Thus, for the military, finding partners in academia has been difficult since 9/11, unlike how academia greeted Pentagon outreach and dollars to look into the Soviets in past generations. While some scholars (including me) have striven in recent years to build a rival academic organization which is less enthralled with left-wing approaches to Islam and Islamism, these efforts are still in the building phase.
Due to this this lack of sufficient academic partners not just in Middle Eastern studies, but in many areas of security and military affairs, DoD has too often relied on homegrown “experts” without either a scholarly background or serious training or experience.
This is not just an arrow pointed at the JFSC: this unfortunate tendency exists across PME, especially relating to au courant subjects. Some years ago, for example, my own institution, the Naval War College, created a center to study the then-trendy matter of “irregular warfare”, despite a local lack of genuine experts in its subject matter. (To its credit, that center has since brought experts to Newport under its aegis to discuss such matters — although that is something the Naval War College does anyway.)
The bigger problem, of course, is that too many self-proclaimed “experts” across PME mean only that they are “experts” in the building where they work, and not actually recognized authorities on the subject in the outside world of scholarship, where their work would have be recognized and vetted by their peers.
In any case, the JFSC fumble was only one such instance. Since 9/11, DoD and PME have repeatedly embraced individuals who have made up in emotion about Islam what they lacked in deep knowledge.
Here, the case of an Islam “expert” named Stephen Coughlin is instructive. Coughlin is an Army Reserve officer and attorney without any academic background in Islam or the Middle East. He had carved out a niche for himself in Washington, DC, as a radical “truth-teller” on Islam, earning praise from an Army staffer at the Air Command and Staff College who described Coughlin as, “to my knowledge, the only Islamic Law scholar on the Joint Staff.” (The obvious question, of course, when someone says “to my knowledge” is just how broad that knowledge is to begin with.)
Coughlin’s claim to expertise was his 2007 master’s thesis at the National Defense Intelligence College (since renamed the National Intelligence University) about how Americans allegedly “Ignore What Extremists Say About Jihad.” The National Defense Intelligence College is an in-house program in the Intelligence Community which is one of the lowest rungs of PME (full disclosure: I used to adjunct there, I should know) and is now undergoing scrutiny of its own standards.
Coughlin’s massive, 300-page-plus work, which can kindly be called turgid, is Coughlin’s personal interpretation of Islam based on his reading of basic religious texts. But here’s the kicker: Coughlin knows no Arabic – and the Koran cannot truly be analyzed in any other language, no more than would-be experts can plumb — or should trash-talk — Judaism or Christianity without working knowledge of Biblical Hebrew or koine Greek. But this did not deter him from standing by his findings, nor did it bother his many defenders inside and outside DoD.
Coughlin presented his views at many PME institutions — including, regrettably, my own. In 2008, he was released from his Pentagon position as an advisor on Islam when some of his more controversial assertions came to light. His dismissal from the Joint Staff was greeted with howls of indignation from the professional anti-jihadist cohort, especially in the blogosphere, but Coughlin has since continued to present his unique take on Islam to various audiences, including those from the U.S. Government, and he continues to sell himself as “The leading expert in the United States on Islamic Doctrine” (whatever that means).
The Coughlin case is only unique in the amount of eventual attention it garnered in the media. The fact of the matter is that PME and DoD have long overindulged – and overpaid – self-styled “experts” who lack any real scholarly background in what they are talking about, however controversial or esoteric the subject. Fixing this knotty problem is important, and thankfully, solving it now has the imprimatur of the JCS. But it will take time and effort, as it cuts to the heart of academic quality control issues which are burrowed deeply in the entire PME community.
The collapse of cooperation between scholars and soldiers is worrisome, not just because the military, in the absence of expertise, will wing it in PME, but because it’s just too easy for dodgy or irrelevant scholarship from the civilian world to fill the void.
I can think of several similar experts who have unfortunately caught the attention of the military over the years. The defense community’s fascination a few years back with Robert Pape’s book on terrorism comes to mind, for example, even though Pape likewise has no background in the languages or cultures of the region, and bases his argument on a flawed quantitative model that no doubt appealed to metric-hungry military audiences.
I myself recently had something of a dustup on the H-DIPLO network with a young scholar named Jennifer Lind from my own former stomping ground up at Dartmouth, who (along with RAND analyst Bruce Bennett) produced a study of the requirements for occupying North Korea that was so formal and arid it could not — I argued — be of much practical use.
Prof. Lind objected that the paper had been widely briefed to the military. I could only say that I was not surprised, but I reminded her that briefing something to a lot of people does not then validate the research: it just means a lot of people heard it (for better or worse).
Any other nominees out there? Comments and questions for Dr. Schindler, as ever, are welcome.