Ten Miles Square


October 05, 2011 11:24 AM Political Science Journals as Indirect Lobbying

By Henry Farrell

Thomas Ricks posts a disturbing – if not exactly surprising – response to the Air Force’s decision to shut down Strategic Studies Quarterly.

On its fortieth anniversary, the USAF unceremoniously cancelled the Air University Review and its content was redirected toward the tactically- and operationally-oriented Airpower Journal (today Air and Space Power Journal). The faculty of the schools at Air University regretted this decision, as it left the field of publishing strategic thought to the Army and Navy. This had a significant effect on strategic discourse within the profession of arms for a generation—to the Air Force’s detriment. … During the 1990s and early 2000s, airpower demonstrated its strategic potential in Operation Desert Storm, Operations Northern and Southern Watch, Operation Deliberate Force, Operation Allied Force, and Operation Enduring Freedom. … This period was the culmination of all of the USAF’s dreams of demonstrating an independent, strategic impact in the service of the nation’s political objectives. Or so it could have argued. But it did not because it lacked the venue to make its case. Where were these conflicts analyzed and the case for airpower made? In Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations that sets the conventional wisdom for the foreign policy establishment, Eliot Cohen warned against the seductive “mystique” of airpower, with its promise of cheap and easy victory. Robert Pape, formerly of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, likewise argued that “the true worth of airpower” was its ability to support ground forces on the battlefield. … In International Security, a publication of MIT Press and the primary academic journal in the field of strategic studies, analysts such as Steve Biddle argued that the future of warfare still required closing with the enemy on the ground and that this was beyond airpower’s capabilities.

After a decade of unprecedented and successful air operations, when airpower had finally met the promise of its early advocates—from pickle-barrel accuracy to strategic effects—the conventional wisdom reflected at best cautious optimism about its efficacy. This happened in part because the debate occurred as an away game for the Air Force, depriving it the ability to take the initiative and shape the collective strategic consciousness to its liking. Without the Air University Review to offer considered arguments about these operations, the USAF allowed others in the defense establishment to establish the narrative about airpower, about the value of what the service brought to the fight, about the relevance of “flying, fighting, and winning in air, space, and cyberspace” to the conflicts of the recent past, and ultimately found itself at the mercy of those who “didn’t get it.”

…It was in this environment that Strategic Studies Quarterly was founded. … By publishing quality arguments on topics of interest to the USAF and the defense community writ large but not explicitly advocating a particular line, it has brought the USAF back to the table to participate in the strategic dialogue within the profession with a presence and credibility that it had lacked. … Yet, in Sept. 2011, Air Education and Training Command decided to discontinue its publication. …The editors of Parameters, Naval War College Review, Foreign Affairs, and other journals will set the agenda, choose the topics of interest to them, and put forth the arguments that will form the conventional wisdom. Sadly, the USAF will be a second string team, its arguments always on the road looking for a field on which to play, and relying on the good graces of these others to let them have some play. Another generation will likely pass before an Air Force leader realizes that they could have been shaping the conventional wisdom for years, rather than fighting it, when they press their case to other services, civilian policy makers, legislators, and the American people. In the meantime, the service will likely suffer.

The very strong implication here is that if you are running a military service, and you are not able to shape the conventional wisdom, your interests (for which, read: budget) will suffer. Therefore, you need to shape the conventional wisdom. One good way to do this is to have your own, well-respected academic journal. While this journal will not overtly campaign for your causes (it does not advocate a ‘particular line’), it will nonetheless shape debate in ways that are congenial to your long term interests. Otherwise, after all, there would be no point in paying for it. In the absence of such a journal, you are forced to rely on the generosity of other journals which may instead, to your horror, publish articles suggesting that your service’s contribution is somewhere between secondary and negligible.

None of this is precisely surprising. When there are billions of dollars at stake, organizations are going to do whatever they can to make sure that the money flows in their direction, rather than towards others. But academics usually prefer to think of themselves as scholars solely interested in pursuing the truth, not as pawns advancing a large scale lobbying effort. I wonder what academics who have published in Strategic Studies Quarterly think about this analysis of the actual role of the journal. I can’t imagine that they’re happy.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.


  • Andrew Sabl on October 06, 2011 2:27 PM:

    While I don't publish in military journals, I can imagine a way in which academics who do might not mind Ricks' analysis so much. That is: academics who studied (say) the strategic effect of different kinds of military interventions could reason the following way: "If I honestly believe that air power had a substantial effect in a certain case, I might submit my work to the Air Force's in-house journal (which will, presumably, only maintain its reputation and influence if it subjects my specific claims to searching editorial criticism and peer review). If I believe it was ground troops that made the difference, a more neutral journal, or the Army's journal, might be the place to say that." As long as the academic is known for publishing what he or she really believes, driven by the data and reasoning--which may mean publishing different ideas in different journals--the fact that journals are biased need not in any way entail that the academics who write for them are.

    The real question, it seems to me, involves service on the editorial board of such a journal. That does seem to involve copping to the journal's characteristic bias.