WASHINGTON, August 8, 2014 – Senator Joe Biden plagiarized a campaign speech and became Vice President of the United States. Senator John Walsh, D-Mont., plagiarized a final paper and may have ended his political career. What’s the difference?
On Thursday, Walsh dropped his bid to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Montana. He has served in the Senate since February, when he was appointed to replace Max Baucus, who was named ambassador to China. His campaign was already doing badly against that of his Republican challenger, Representative Steve Daines, when two weeks ago the New York Times reported that he plagiarized much of the final paper for his master’s degree at the U.S. Army War College.
Monday is the deadline to drop out of Montana’s general election. Walsh’s campaign advisors told him that his situation had become irrecoverable, and by dropping out of the race, he makes it possible for Montana’s Democratic Party to choose another candidate at a convention in Helena later this month.
Walsh was already considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate. His departure leaves Daines with a campaign lead over the eventual Democratic nominee, but it does give the Democrats a chance to choose someone who might have a better chance than Walsh. To that extent, the Times report may have done Senate Democrats a favor.
Walsh’s final paper was not a master’s thesis, as some have reported, but its brevity and lack of hard analysis have raised eyebrows, even absent the issue of plagiarism. At just over 13 pages of text, over half of it consisted of passages that were either improperly attributed, incorrectly attributed, or lifted directly from other papers without attribution. Of the remainder, most consisted of block quotes from other papers. Barely a single page consisted of material original to Walsh.
Walsh initially blamed post traumatic stress for his lack of originality in the paper, but then backed off of that claim. He didn’t admit wrongdoing in his statement Thursday, alluding to it only with the comment that the “research paper from my time at the U.S. Army War College has become a distraction from the debate you expect and deserve.”
The War College is investigating to determine whether Walsh did in fact plagiarize his paper. It has already tentatively concluded that he did, and if a review board reaches that same conclusion this month, Walsh will probably be stripped of his degree.
In the end, this incident may be more damaging to the War College than to Walsh. Admission to the War College is highly competitive. The College has trained top leaders in the U.S. military, it trains civilian professionals in agencies such as the NSA, and it trains officers for other nations around the globe.
The U.S. Army War College is a prestigious institution, but Walsh’s paper puts the rigor of the program into a bad light.
In one of the few original passages in his paper, Walsh wrote, “This project will provide a valid argument that the United States must continue to pursue democracy in the Middle East as a key component of the National Security Strategy of the United states of America beyond January 20, 2009 when President Bush leaves office.”
His paper was intended to support this thesis and lead to his plagiarized conclusion: “Even with all the mistakes made by the United States – in failing to plan and prepare adequately for the postwar reconstruction of Iraq and in imposing a political occupation upon a proud and nationalistic people, suspicious of the West – it is still possible that democracy will take hold and continue to spread throughout the Middle East.”
A lot of things are possible, but Walsh failed to show that his conclusion was anything more than a conjecture. There is no hard analysis to suggest a range of probabilities. His paper is totally devoid of data-driven analysis, or of any serious case studies. It contains no methodology. It is a catalog of assertions, with scarcely any historical context to substitute for the lack of quantitative analysis.
“Most studies of the democratic-peace proposition have argued that democracies only enjoy a state of peace with other democracies; they are just as likely as other states to go to war with non-democracies. There are, however, several scholars who argue that democracies are inherently less likely to go to war than other types of states. The evidence for this claim remains in dispute, however …”
This passage was drawn from another paper that may have explained what that disputed evidence was, or how those “several scholars” supported their arguments, but Walsh included none of that.
In most serious programs, this paper would have barely been adequate as a proposal for a final project, let alone the project itself. How the War College let it get by is a question for another internal inquiry.
When he was in the Senate, Vice President Joe Biden plagiarized a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock. Ethical lapses by members of Congress are so common that they scarcely raise an eyebrow anymore. So why has the case of John Walsh drawn more attention?
The War College has rescinded only six diplomas since 1990 for plagiarism, out of 500 diplomas granted every year. It has produced some fine analysts and highly talented officers. Walsh’s plagiarism and shoddy paper are certainly anomalies, not the norm at the War College. An institution that trains America’s military leaders will be held to the highest standards, as will its students. These are standards that Walsh failed to meet in every way.
Had he committed his plagiarism at or slouched through Harvard, Walsh might not have drawn so much attention. But he was an officer in the Guard and a student at the War College. It speaks well of the military and the regard in which it is held that Walsh’s plagiarism is a scandal. Were this just a matter for the Senate, it would probably not even be news.