Obama – America’s First Air Power President

Even the strongest proponents for the uses of air power rarely claim that action in the third dimension can win a war by itself.  This is ironic, considering that the earliest air power theorists had nowhere near the technology or capabilities that todays air forces have, and yet they believed an air force could finish a war before the army was even mobilized.  Guilio Douhet felt that the bomber and the nation-state had made ground forces irrelevant. If you break the nations will through mass terror-bombing, you can force an enemy to capitulate, easy as that. However, the limited effectiveness of the strategic bombing campaigns of World War Two proved these theories wrong.

Along the way, while presidents used air power, none relied exclusively upon it.  North Korean aggression was met with troops, the same in Vietnam.  The Cuban Missile Crisis contained a contingency plan for both a bombing campaign, and a land invasion, but it was sea power that performed the relevant military maneuvers.   Reagan intervened with air power in Libya, but also ordered invasions and Grenada and Panama with boots on the ground.

The post-Cold War era saw troops deployed to stop Suddam Hussein Bill Clinton may have ordered a pro-longed bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, and short ones in Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan, but in the former it has been argued that it was the threat of ground invasion that led to the end of the conflict, and the latter three were meant to be punitive, not as a strategy for future operations.

President George W. Bush, meanwhile, responded to the 9/11 attacks with not just punitive invasions but occupations and a desire to remake the Middle East into a democratic haven.  This was impossible without boots on the ground, and the importance of air power was at a low ebb.

But, President Obama has brought in a new renaissance of air power.  While it is hard to believe that Obama has poured over the works of Robert Pape, Colin Gray, Gulio Douhet or John Warden, and developed through these the Obama Doctrine, he has been the first president to rely almost exclusively on air power to obtain American goals.  President Obama famously ramped up the drone campaign against al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.  This allowed him to continually attack terrorist leaders while remaining to be seen as the president who did not commit any more American troops.  Libya was a campaign performed exclusively through air power, and again we see in Iraq a refusal to send troops to stop ISIS. The Kurds – supplied through American airlift capabilities – are the primary kinetic means Obama is utilizing to fight ISIS. 

One of the few ways that America is reassuring its Eastern European NATO allies against Russian incursions, is through increased air patrols over the Baltic states with American fighters, and AWACS and JSTARS overflights constantly monitoring the Ukrainian situation.  It can even be argued that Obama’s lasting legacy, the SEAL raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, was an operation with air power at its heart: without the air capability to get a SEAL team in and out of Jalalabad, it is extremely unlikely the raid would have taken place.

Clearly Obama is taking this route because of his desire to not get American troops involved in another war, especially in the Middle East.  Air power allows him to intervene while keeping American casualties to a minimum.  It also allows him to sell his interventions as humanitarian, as Libya and Iraq show.  The United States will strike quickly if there is the potential for a humanitarian crisis (with, of course, the major exception of Syria).  In policing the world through air power, Obama has created a policy that is largely popular at home with the electorate.

However, though hard for an air power advocate to admit, the historical record shows that air power alone does not win wars.  It can be the largest factor in destroying an enemy army, especially when there is such a discrepancy in ability such as in Desert Storm, but when the enemy is so non-reliant on traditional centers of gravity like power grids or communication nodes, there is only so much air power can achieve.  However,  bands of guerillas fighting in the desert are much harder to find and engage without boots on the ground, as France in Mali has discovered.

In becoming the first president to rely almost exclusively on air power for military engagement, President Obama has gotten himself into a trap that was thought to be debunked 70 years ago.  Despite the importance of air power, the most important factor is the man on the ground with the gun.[1]

[1] Colin Gray“The Continued Primacy of Geography,” Orbis. (Spring 1996), 257.

Mathew Preston – MA student


Journalists and Research Methods

— A Rant by Boris Trnavskis, MSS student

Taking a research methods perspective, my rant questions the value of the writings of journalists like Bob Woodward and Ron Suskind, on matters of public policy, people, and historical events.  I don’t have any answers and maybe my question isn’t even valid. That is because I am writing as a new MSS student with only a superficial understanding of how research and analysis is conducted in political science and history.  So I apologize in advance.  My perspective and bias comes from specializing in research methods in my previous grad studies in an unrelated field, using a wide variety of research techniques over a 31-year working life, and teaching research methods to undergrad and grad, business and engineering students.

First I want to distinguish between research techniques and research methods.  Using inferential or descriptive statistics or probability theory, building mathematical or econometric models, applying operations research techniques such as linear and dynamic programming, using sampling survey or interview techniques, conducting archival research using primary sources, and using case analysis to investigate a specific situation, are examples of research techniques – research “tools” in your research “toolbox.”  Research methods refers to the process of deciding and selecting the “tool” best suited or most appropriate for the problem in hand.  [And parenthetically, as Dr. Maurice Scarlett stressed over and over, the term “research methodology” means the “study of different research methods” and not what I am going to do to answer a research question.  Finally, paraphrasing Russell Ackoff, if you have only a hammer and a saw in your research “toolbox,” then all problems are hammer and saw problems.]

Recently, I read three “non-fiction” books by journalists, Bob Woodward (State of Denial and Plan of Attack) and Ron Suskind (The One Percent Doctrine) to gain a better understanding of U.S. security policy.  The jacket on Woodward’s book states, “Plan of Attack is the definitive account of how and why President George W. Bush, his war council, and allies launched a preemptive attack to topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq.”  The jacket on Suskind’s book claims, “Suskind tells us what actually occurred over the next three years by tracing the steps of the officials who oversee the “’war on terror’ and the men and women who are actually fighting the fight.”  The rest of the text on both jackets implies these authors will provide the reader in-depth knowledge and understanding using inside information on the people and events they are discussing.

Before I start my rant I want to acknowledge that Woodward and Suskind are respected, best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists and authors, and I do not wish to imply any intentional mischief.   However, as a student of research methods, I am troubled by how journalists present factual information.  I think they blur the distinction between creative speculation and verifiable “facts.”  For example, Woodward might have a passage in which he says Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld held a private, SECRET [my emphasis] meeting in the White House on a particular day to discuss WMD.  Woodward then provides very detailed dialogue between the participants, complete with expletives and descriptions of their body language during that meeting.  I presume Woodward is doing this to help me understand the interpersonal dynamics and decision making process within the Bush White House; and to make his book fun to read.  Or if you are a conspiracy buff or cynic, he just wants to sell books.  What is that saying, “the facts and nothing but the facts please?”  Regardless, as a researcher from an unrelated field, I find this troubling on several levels.

First, how would Woodward know (a) if that “secret” meeting was even held; (b) if it was held, who were the participants; (c) what did they discuss; or (d) how did they behave toward each other during that meeting?  But even if one person attending that meeting “leaked” to Woodward “on the record” about a secret meeting, what is the probability the “leaker” could recall the exact words, gestures, etc. – especially when “movers and shakers” are in meetings almost non-stop, every day.  Heck, I didn’t remember my wife asking me to pick up some milk and bread on my way home today!

But even if a meeting participant had no moral or ethical issues revealing publically what took place during a SECRET White House meeting, and that person had a photographic memory, how can we be sure that that person will report the conversation accurately and honestly, without being selective or self-serving?  I mean, who would not want history to record him as a wise and influential, advisor or leader?  So much of the journalists’ writing strikes me as fiction and creative speculation – of questionable validity.  Which is fine, if it is acknowledged as fiction or an editorial position.  But from a research methods perspective, is it a reliable way to gain information or insight?  That is, how much weight should I give to books and articles written by journalists because it is hard for me to distinguish fact from fiction?

It is also troubling on another level.  In the U.S., the media and freedom of the press guarantees exist, to allow the media to be “fair and balanced” (© Fox News) in the performance of its “due diligence” responsibilities on behalf of American citizens, so those citizens can give their “informed consent” to their leaders.  Most non-partisan, news media watchdogs point out that the majority of journalists select and report events through a left-of-centre, liberal lens.  Is the process further corrupted if these journalists can make up stuff and publish it as non-fiction?  What if a journalist wants to demonize, marginalize, or ridicule a person they don’t like or agree with – like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others?  Books written by journalists are ideal vehicles for selective presentation of facts, misrepresentation, spin, and character assassination.  Why, because if I can make up conversations or take words out-of-context, I can make anyone look out-of-touch, insensitive, extreme, imperial, or almost anything I wish.  Of course, the opposite is also true if journalists like the person they are writing about, like Obama.  Bernard Goldberg’s book, “A Slobbering Love Affair: The True and Pathetic Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media,” talks about that side of the coin.

But back to the research methods issue, should we rely on books written by journalists on public policy issues simply because there is nothing better?  If yes, how much weight should we give their accounts?  Are there other sources we can use to check the “facts?” I understand that these journalists often get it right but isn’t that an “ends justify the means” kind of justification?  I don’t know the answers.  All I know is I need a glass of single malt when I read Woodward telling me exactly what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, or whoever said in confidence, behind closed doors.

My Journey through ‘Access to Information’

A short while ago, one of my esteemed colleagues shared an article with me that outlined Canada’s abysmal record in providing its citizens with access to government documents. Ranking a shameful 51st on a list of 89 freedom-of-information rankings taken in June 2012, Canada languished behind Angola, Columbia, and Niger in government openness. This is particularly disgraceful given that Canada was at one time among the world’s leaders in government openness.

I, for one, am appalled by this statistic, but unfortunately know firsthand why it is invariably and absolutely true.

Canada’s Access to Information Act took force on 1 July 1983, and allows those interested to pay $5 per request to access a variety of records in federal files – from correspondence and reports to briefing notes and hospitality receipts. Departments and agencies are supposed to respond to requests within 30 days, but often take large extensions of up to half a year or much (much) more. Often little information – if any – is released even after a lengthy wait.

I began my journey through Access to Information over a year ago and have been battling several different federal agencies (DND, DFAIT, and Library and Archives Canada) to gain access to documents pertaining to my research. Unfortunately, the journey has been difficult and I have been resisted at every turn. I continue to have my requests rejected or returned full of blank pages (the information having been redacted), but most of the responses I receive are extension notifications of “up to 500 days” from the date of receipt to respond to my requests.

Now, besides the fact that listing these extension notifications in days as opposed to the nearly TWO YEARS that they actually represent is slightly insulting, I happen to know for a fact that the documents I wish to view are of an entirely bureaucratic nature and have absolutely nothing to do with operational security. It should really not be a problem to allow me access to these documents. And in case you think I’m wrong or am being overly sensitive, I would like to point out that I am not the only person facing these challenges – I know several researchers who have been refused, asked to provide exorbitant amounts of extra money for the information they request, or are given ridiculous extensions, one of up to FIVE years.

Recently I made several official complaints to Canada’s Information Commissioner regarding these extensions and rejections – the legal recourse available to all requesters of Canadian government documents. Yesterday I received notice that “having sat with the agent dealing with several of your requests for a couple of hours, we have determined that there is already over 1600 pages of documents we can make available to you by 30 November 2012. He will no longer be requiring the 500 days initially given for replying to your request.” … apparently when you put your mind to it… and throw in a little effort… 500 days can become two hours… just saying.

While I am ecstatic that some of my documents will soon be arriving, it is upsetting to me that the system our government has established to ensure openness and accountability is failing. Miserably. And I am not the only one appalled by this. Toby Mendel, president of the Centre for Law and Democracy – the group responsible for ranking the effectiveness of access to information laws worldwide – recently spoke with officials devising an access law for Morocco. They asked him what the Canadian government had proposed in the area of access reform as part of the global Open Government Partnership initiative. Mendel told them that Canada had suggested allowing access requesters to apply electronically, dispensing with the current cumbersome practice of a paper application form and a $5 cheque or money order.

“Literally, I could see their jaws dropping,” Mendel said in an interview. “Because it was incomprehensible to them that a country like Canada would not already have electronic requesting possibility.”

Recently, simple improvements, such as allowing for electronic applications to replace the current cumbersome paper form and online access to previously requested documents, have been proposed by the Harper administration, but they have yet to be implemented as they have been in other places. It remains to be seen whether our current government will succeed in making changes to this flawed system. Despite posturing to the contrary, a succession of Canadian administrations has failed to upgrade the access act since its inception.

It is understandable, perhaps, that governments are reluctant to open their doors to requests for information that might compromise them, but it is unacceptable that so much information that Canadians have a right to know is being systematically kept out of sight.

The moral of this story: if you are going to have need for Canadian government documents through the access to information process, start early. It may take a while. And if you encounter resistance, complain. Write a letter to the Information Commissioner regarding the process and your experience. Not only may you have your wait time cut from 500 days to ONE, but the more voices of discontent our government receives, the more likely it will be that change may one day actually occur.

Rise of the Resume Builder

Ahhh it’s that time of year again. Fall. All the undergrads around campus diligently scamper from class to class (not to worry, a reduction in attendance correlates to the arrival of cold weather). Profs duck out early to take advantage of the last few weeks of good weather. And for the graduate students, the arrival of fall heralds another year of conferences. Oh conferences. The place where you can present your ideas in front of your peers and complete strangers who haven’t the slightest clue what contrived notions you are spouting. It’s an inescapable part of the graduate experience. Sadly, it has become extremely difficult to present your research at many of the larger events. Rejection from conferences is part of the game. You get used to it and try not to take it personally. There are a variety of reasons for rejection. Politics (if it’s a small field), topic (even I admit some of my stuff isn’t exactly riveting) and panels (square peg, round hole). But the newest and largest problem has become the Resume Builders (RB). These are the people who view conferences as just that. They are distinctly different from the Researchers. RB’s are the ones who spam submissions panels with half-baked ideas with no research basis. Let me demonstrate.


Figure 1: A half-assed drawing for a half-assed topic.


See, an RB just needs to get TO the conference. They do not need to present well or impress upon people the importance of their research. If they can put on their CV that they presented at ‘The Greatest Conference EVARRRRR’ then it’s job well done.

I am sure that you are now saying “well there has to be a way to defend against these academic couch potatoes.” Sadly, no. Admissions to conferences are decided in one page or less. Any good writer can BS enough to fill a page with concrete information. It then becomes a crap shoot for organizers. So things like PhDs over Masters students becomes a factor. That used to  guarantee you a good presentation, but no longer. Grad school has become the thing to do as a result of the craptacular economy and there are plenty of people out there who are doing it in lieu of a job. As someone who has substantial research to tell people about, it’s frustrating to know that an RB is going to present in your place. People will whisper in the crowd “That wasn’t very good” or “They don’t sound confident”. But then life will go on. And the few chances for real researchers to impress their peers will slip away.

Your supervisor will yell at you for not doing conferences, resulting in your funding to drop. Funding drops mean that you have to get a full time job, which erodes the quality of your work further. And then you drop out. Another grad school burn out. Yay! Meanwhile, the RB has lots of conferences on their CV. They appear to be a flourishing academic. They get well funded and complete their degree. They then quit academics and move to private industry because the economy has picked up and there is money to be made.

SO rejoice! You can sleep well. Rest assured that you are aiding someone, somewhere, in building their resume so they can jump right into that junior executive position.


Students and the “Disgusting, Senseless Beating to Death of an Old Man”

University students are usually smart people, more or less taking an interest in the many events happening around the globe, and they like to test their ever-expanding knowledge and understanding of newly learned theories against these same happenings. But sometimes I wish they would abandon their sophisticated university mentality just for a moment and use some common sense. To actually think before fleeing up the stairs of their precious, safe ivory tower out of acquired academic reflex. It seems sometimes as if this habit has become their only means by which to regard the world.

My case in point is the reaction to the death of Muammar al-Gaddafi just a couple of days ago. Whether in personal conversation or on different social networks, I have had the impression that there is a lot of finger-pointing going on, combined with evocations of humanity (all too often by – but not limited to – students of the humanities), as well as general support for the condemnation of violence and the upholding of human rights no matter what.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all good things (although some people might find it debatable if that is also true for the humanities). If going to university helps to embed these, our values, into the minds of young people and to encourage them to uphold them in public dialogue, then who am I to complain.

But then again, there is a huge gap between engaging yourself in a chain of thought experiment, however intellectually challenging, while kicking back in your favourite piece of upholstery, all nicely cuddled up with a cold beverage in hand, and actually getting down to the nitty-gritty of dealing with a real world environment.

Maybe, if some students/armchair-revolutionaries got off their high academic horse once in a while, they might realize that talk of humanity and the advantages of acting meekly and mild is pretty cheap when you enjoy the privilege of having grown up as part of a generation in a part of the world that has never really seen war, in societies that never left us severely unprivileged or discriminated against, that left our families intact and us without fear of some authority kicking in our apartment door in the middle of the night for saying the wrong thing, to the wrong person, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or just for no reason at all.

Even the most indifferent observer of the Arab Spring should recognize the fact that, demographically, many of the affected societies are fairly young. And let us not digress to  “discuss what the revolutionaries’ agenda is,” or “who has got a stake in this or that movement.” These people don’t have the same chances for the pursuit of happiness as we do. They don’t always get to go to university where their biggest problems are class starting early on a Monday, whether they can afford it financially to go to the movies or to have another drink, or what they should be doing over the next holiday.

Maybe, once in a while, we should abandon our aloof academic theories and, to put it bluntly, just shut up and be humble for a change. Imagine picking up a gun, or a brick, or a protest sign and fighting for something, because, ultimately, you don’t have a promising alternative. Talk of humanity might be good enough to give you a warm fuzzy feeling, but in a political system that grants you participation on paper at best, it doesn’t do anything. Let’s be grateful for our 200 year head start into democracy and for the fact that our ancestors took care of getting rid of illegitimate leaders like Louis XVI. I wasn’t around back then but I’m pretty sure public beheadings weren’t too civilized either. Still, it seems we’ve turned out well enough to judge other people now.

Toeing the Party Line…

We are very fortunate here at the UofC, and at CMSS specifically, to enjoy regular presentations by academics, policy-makers, and members of the armed forces who come to share their experiences, research, and opinions with us. These presentations are invaluable to our development as students. They force us to pull our heads out of our books, they provide access to information not readily available in the library and – often – they offer a forum for open discussion on important and topical issues. I say “often” only because this forum for constructive dialogue is occasionally, and in the case of our defence department, all too frequently, squandered. Why does DND choose to continue sending out representatives to “discuss important and relevant issues to all Canadians” and then refuse to actually discuss the issues? We appreciate that some things are classified, that others are not easily discussed with the public, and that significant time should be spent on the varied and wonderful achievements of our armed forces operating around the world. That said, why must we pretend that all decisions concerning Canadian defence and Canadian military operations are beyond reproach – or at least discussion and re-examination? Where, if not in an academic setting, with students who are currently researching these issues and many of whom are preparing to fill the very positions our government and armed forces now hold, should real discussions take place? Not every meeting or presentation should be treated as a PR opportunity. You’re not fooling anyone guys…. we know that things in Afghanistan and elsewhere weren’t all flowers and sunshine. If you’re not willing to discuss the real issues, the same things are going to happen again next time. Please don’t patronize us. We’re grad students… not journalists.