In (Partial) Defense of the Disgraced Syria Scholar With the Fake Degree

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 12 2013 10:39 AM

In (Partial) Defense of the Disgraced Syria Scholar With the Fake Degree

So: On Aug. 30, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by an increasingly prominent but still somewhat obscure Syria scholar named Elizabeth O'Bagy. The point of it was that a growing fear that extremists ran the Syrian opposition was baseless. "Moderates and extremists wield control over distinct territory," wrote O'Bagy, identified as an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. "Although these areas are often close to one another, checkpoints demarcate control. On my last trip into Syria earlier this month, we traveled freely through parts of Aleppo controlled by the Free Syrian Army, following roads that kept us at safe distance from the checkpoints marked by the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"Last trip"—nice touch, a hint that O'Bagy has logged the miles in and out of Syria that members of Congress had not. When John Kerry trekked to the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain—who had worked with O'Bagy on one of her trips—read from the column and asked the secretary of state whether the assessment was true.

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McCain often cites the WSJ to make arguments; he copped the term "wacko birds" from one of their op-eds. What most people didn't realize about this reference, though, was that O'Bagy had also worked with the Syrian Emergency Task Force. That fact, dug up by conservative journalist Charles Johnson, forced the WSJ to add a disclaimer to the story. This might have ended there, had the Syrian Emergency Task Force not referred to its expert pal as a "doctor." Some basic sleuthing by reporter Susannah George proved that O'Bagy, who's 26 years old, had finished but not defended a dissertation—i.e., she wasn't a doctor. O'Bagy had never bothered to correct anyone who called her one. By Sept. 11, her think tank had fired her. In less than two weeks, she went from a citable expert on Syria to a disgraced fraud.

Was that fair? Well, sure, you shouldn't inflate your academic credentials. If someone is giving you bonus gravitas by inflating your resume, you should correct them. Obviously.

But I can't shake the feeling that O'Bagy was railroaded for minor mistakes. Had she originally identified herself as an ally of the SETF, would her op-ed have been unpublishable? I don't think so. Her supposed expertise didn't grow out of her independence; it grew out of her trips to Syria. No one has disputed that she took those trips. This isn't like some former congressman writing an op-ed about the need to pass some tax break for wind farms, having never spoken about this before, without disclosing that he's bought a new yacht with proceeds from Big Wind Farm Inc. She screwed up, but not in a way that invalidated the op-ed—not that it mattered, as no one's going to cite her again. Resume inflation is fraud, and she had to lose her job, but really, how many pundits do you see claim to have expertise on Syria having done far less research or field work than O'Bagy? Had she been honest, and merely been a think tanker with a master's degree, I doubt she would have missed out on media appearances.

To recap:

1) Senators, and people even more powerful, do not necessarily vet their research.

2) People shouldn't inflate their resumes.

3) The guns are out and smoking for anyone advocating an unpopular intervention in Syria.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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