By now, if you have been following the political minutiae of the Syria debate in Washington, you know that a young Syria analyst (who turned out to be a pro-opposition advocate) was fired yesterday from her job at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which is run by neoconservative interventionist Kimberly Kagan, for ostensibly lying about having a PhD. There seems to be some confusion about whether Elizabeth O’Bagy, 26, and her newly-minted masters degree at Georgetown University had merely been a candidate for a doctoral degree, or was even registered in any Georgetown PhD program at all. On Sept. 9 she told Politico that she had submitted but not defended her dissertation, while she appears to have said the complete opposite in this Daily Caller piece on the same day. Bottom line: in her numerous media and think tank appearances, as well as a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, and most importantly, on the ISW website, she was listed as Elizabeth O’Bagy PhD. In the Daily Caller interview she told the reporter, “you can call me doctor if you want.”
We care about this even a little because O’Bagy was recently cited by both Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain as a credible source of research on the opposition groups operating on the ground in Syria. O’Bagy’s line jibed well with theirs, that there were enough moderate rebels in Syria to work with the United States toward peace in Syria after U.S. air strikes degraded Assad’s own military capabilities (Read: regime change ). O’Bagy, who reportedly traveled extensively among rebel groups in Syria, was also a key orchestrator of McCain’s secret trip there. Her affiliation with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an opaque pro-strike opposition group run by a guy who fronted a similar pro-strike group during the Libya debate, was never listed in her official bios, nor by the numerous media (FOX News, BBC, etc) she appeared on, nor even the ISW website. Her story began to unravel there.
What’s most interesting about her final fall, which splashed across the media webzines and Twitter universe yesterday, is that no one seems to wonder how Kagan did not know her primary spokesperson for Syria did not hold a full-fledged doctorate and why Kagan, by all accounts, is now throwing O’Bagy under the bus. Kagan, friend and hagiographer to David Petraeus, counselor to Stanley McChrystal, sister-in-law to Robert Kagan and wife of Frederick Kagan, pro-war hawk and author of the so-called “surge strategy” that convinced a failure-stunned George W. Bush to put 20,000 more troops in harms way in Iraq in 2007, should know better. She has a PhD, right? Simply put, her subsequent interviews with reporters after O’Bagy’s firing Wednesday reeks of something, and it rhymes with CAT.
This is what Kagan told the Daily Caller, which has been on this story since O’Bagy was quoted by McCain during last week’s hearings:
“Ms. O’Bagy told me that she had successfully defended her dissertation in May 2013,” Kim Kagan, director of the ISW and former advisor to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told TheDC. “But she hadn’t. She misrepresented that she had successfully defended it.”
Kagan also says that O’Bagy told her she was in a joint PhD/M.A program and that it “continued to be [her] understanding” that O’Bagy was in that program. O’Bagy graduated from Georgetown’s master’s program in 2013.
Yet the ISW website plainly said (as of before yesterday) that O’Bagy had a PhD and called her “Dr.” in its senior staff bio page. This writer clearly remembers seeing it because it made an impression (in fact, I pointed it out, here, on Aug. 27). The bio is off the site now, there is one screen shot of it here on a Think Progress story of O’Bagy’s downfall, published last night.
In that story, Kagan behaves as though she isn’t even running the institute much less the work it’s doing on Syria. When reporter Zack Beauchamp asks her how, after an initial round of calls, they cannot find O’Bagy associated with any PhD program at Georgetown, Kagan, whose elaborate family connections in the national security establishment hierarchy are the stuff most Beltway Bandits only dream about, “demurs,” saying, “that I actually need to refer you to Georgetown for.”
When asked who paid for all of O’Bagy’s trips and her Syrian rebel connections — which have been used to burnish O’Bagy’s lack of professional credentials (ISW is actually her first job ) — Kagan, the founder and president of ISW, says she DOESN’T KNOW.
“That’s a really good question. I’m afraid I can’t really tell you that,” the ISW President told Think Progress. “She kept me informed about [her opposition contacts] and apprised me that they existed.”
Forgive us if our bull meter is wildly going off here. Kagan, who flew in and out of Iraq on “eight battlefield circulations” during the Iraq War, according to her WikiPedia page (read: boondoggle trips to advance Gen. Petraeus and the surge), knows all about how such trips are funded, how Washington works in this regard. That she knows nothing about how her senior fellow, who is representing her institute all over the mass media, is a laughable proposition. So who funded those trips Kimberly? Inquiring minds want to know because if we did not give a damn before, we certainly do now.
O’Bagy may very well have gone on those trips and, as Think Progress so generously allows, “the work they helped her produce was influential and widely respected.” But Beauchamp also notes that, “over the course of roughly a year, she went from a graduate student and intern to a pundit making regular appearances on Fox News and being published in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and well, The Wall Street Journal. She was promoted to Senior Analyst and then to Syria Team Lead at ISW, and had become known as a go-to expert on the Syrian rebels among foreign policy experts.”
Let’s be frank, this just doesn’t happen in Washington unless there are other, self-interested forces at play. Her recent appearances on FOX, for example, show a capable, smart woman who seems very well briefed on the subject of Syrian rebel groups, but she gives absolutely no hint about what it is like being with the rebels, what they are like, the look, the smell and feel of insurgency. Something is missing. Maybe it’s nothing more than a PhD. Now that she can’t talk to reporters about her affiliation with ISW we may never know.
What I think is that O’Bagy was used by ISW to push the institute’s pro-strike/pro-regime change agenda, and now they are letting her swing in the hot wind of a Washington scandal, alone. Kagan is long past her prime as a positive intervention spokesperson. The woman who once compared Petraeus and Gen. Ray “desert ox” Odierno to Napoleon and Patton doesn’t have the same credibility now that Afghanistan and even Iraq are largely viewed as failures by the American public. O’Bagy provided a fresh face, the right tone and ostensibly good research.
Kagan is the one the dogged beltway reporters should be digging at. O’Bagy has paid enough.