The Rapid Rise and Humiliating Fall of a Middle East "Expert"
It seems as though every few months, some Washington institution—a government agency, a think tank, or the like —finds themselves surprised when one of the people working for them turns out to be a fraud, a purveyor of offensive ideas, or otherwise an embarrassment. After a few days of controversy, the person's resignation is accepted, and they disappear forever. Back in July, a guy working for Rand Paul turned out to be a neo-Confederate. In May, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, Jason Richwine, turned out to have some colorful ideas about Hispanics and IQ. The latest, and one of the strangest, is the case of Elizabeth O'Bagy, an expert on Syria employed by the Institute for the Study of War, a right-leaning think tank.
This often happens when the person achieves precisely the goal they've been working for: wide dissemination of their ideas, and an elevation in their visibility. It's that sudden visibility that leads people who disagree with those ideas to say, "Who is this person?" and start looking into their past, which is when things begin to unravel. In Richwine's case, a study he co-authored for Heritage on immigration reform came under assault for its methodology, which led to more questions about him, which led people to look at his doctoral dissertation, whose ideas about race and IQ then led to his departure. Zack Beauchamp at ThinkProgress has a good explanation of exactly what happened with Elizabeth O'Bagy, but the brief version is that she's been appearing a lot on Fox as an expert on Syria, and two weeks ago published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal arguing for the strength of moderate elements within the Syrian rebellion. She even got cited by John McCain during hearings on Syria. The op-ed didn't mention that in addition to working for ISW, she was also affiliated with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a group advocating for the rebels (they still list her as their Political Director), which at the very least should have been disclosed if she was presenting herself as an objective scholar. Once she and the WSJ got criticized for that, people started asking questions about her, and discovered that she's been falsely claiming to have a Ph.D. from Georgetown, when it looks as though she only has a master's degree. ISW promptly fired her.
One thing you often hear repeated when someone like this is exposed is that, as Beauchamp says, "O'Bagy's rise and fall is yet more evidence that the talented people who populate America's media and policy apparatus never seem to quite fully internalize: never, ever lie about something someone else can prove you wrong about. You're going to get caught." But we don't know if that's true, because by definition, if someone gets away with this kind of deception, we never hear about it. For all we know, half the think-tank wonks in D.C. who claim to have Ph.D.s are frauds.
I'm sure that's not the case, but how many employers call up universities to verify that someone they're considering hiring got the degrees they claim? I imagine it happens if it's a Fortune 500 corporation hiring a new CEO, but a small think tank taking on a new research fellow? The fact is that much of the world runs on people assuming others are acting in good faith and telling the truth about the things that are verifiable. If it didn't, we'd be overwhelmed by our suspicion, spending all our time trying to figure out what lies we've been told. We'd all become conspiracy theorists, which would end up preventing us from ever doing any real work.
On the other hand, you do still have to wonder what O'Bagy was thinking. I doubt it was a carefully thought-out plan. I wouldn't be surprised if at some point somebody in an interview erroneously referred to her as "Dr. O'Bagy," nobody noticed, and then she just figured, what the hell. The one strange part is that she was working at ISW while getting her master's, so they knew her, and at some point she had to tell them that she had now received her Ph.D. That would have had to be a much more involved lie, because when you're among people who know anything about it, they're going to ask friendly questions like "How did your dissertation defense go?", at which point you'll have to start spinning out detailed fictions. Once you do that, I guess you're invested in it and you can't go back.
I spoke today with someone who works at a different Washington think tank focused on the Middle East, who told me he had met O'Bagy at various events over the last couple of years, but had never seen her referred to as "Dr." When I asked if the fact that (according to news reports anyway) she speaks Arabic well could have made her a hot commodity, he said no—prior to 9/11, it was common for those working on Middle East issues not to be Arabic speakers, but ever since then, it's been all but mandatory for people entering the field, so as a younger person that wouldn't have distinguished her. He also told me that O'Bagy's relationship with Syrian rebel groups undercut her authority (though apparently not on Fox News) "There are lot of us who share her opinion about what's going on on the ground in Syria, but thought that she was too personally invested," he said.
As for what could have led to her gilding her résumé, Washington doesn't exactly lack for ambitious young people who want to be taken seriously as experts, some of whom may be looking for a leg up. But it wasn't as though she could never have gotten ahead without a doctorate. In some fields like economics you might need a Ph.D. to be considered an expert, but in something like Middle East affairs, there are plenty of people who combine a lower level of academic training like a master's degree with practical experience, and are taken as seriously as anyone else. And as my source said, "This is a field where there are so few women." We can't know if that made her insecure or contributed in any way to her choice to claim credentials she didn't have. But she's sure going to have to find another line of work now.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)