Failing Upward: Elizabeth O'Bagy's New Gig with McCain

September 27, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: Syria Blog Brand: The Buzz

Failing Upward: Elizabeth O'Bagy's New Gig with McCain

The disgraced Syria specialist moves to Capitol Hill.


After scandals, disgraces, and public embarrassments, Washington is generous with second chances, but usually only after a decent interval.

Not so with Elizabeth O’Bagy, the disgraced analyst who was fired by the neoconservative Institute for the Study of War (ISW) for masquerading as a Georgetown PhD student, who has reportedly been hired by Senator John McCain as a legislative assistant. O’Bagy claimed to have defended her dissertation to friends and colleagues, but there was one problem: no one at Georgetown had heard of a doctoral student by that name. She was never in the program.


O’Bagy rose to prominence as an employee of ISW where she conducted research on the Syrian civil war. Due to her contacts with Syrian rebel organizations (she also worked for a rebel advocacy organization in Washington) and purported field research on the ground, her work became widely cited by high-profile figures, including Senator John McCain. In a lengthy Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and General Martin Dempsey, McCain cited “Dr. O’Bagy” extensively, quoting her Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which she argued, “the war in Syria is not being waged entirely or even predominately by dangerous Islamists and al-Qaida die-hards.” Indeed, the moderate nature of the Syrian rebels is a trope of O’Bagy’s reports for ISW just as it has been in McCain’s calls on the White House to arm the Syrian rebels. It is said that O’Bagy even orchestrated McCain’s trip to Syria to visit rebel commanders.

But pride comes before the fall.

It soon came to light that she had fabricated her qualifications. She had never been admitted to the joint M.A.-PhD program at Georgetown she claimed to be in. Her supposed supervisor had never heard of her. Kimberly Kagan, the head of ISW, maintains that O’Bagy’s misleading assertions about her background in no way compromised the work she did for ISW on Syria. We are told we should still trust her findings.

It turns out those findings—namely that the Syrian rebellion is broadly moderate—are also bogus. Just the other day, thirteen rebel groups led al Qaeda’s Nusra Front rejected the authority of the Syrian National Coalition, the moderate rebel command authority backed by the United States, calling on those opposing Assad to establish a “clear Islamic framework.”

Still, we have to give Senator McCain some credit for his consistency. For a few years now, his view of the world has been largely fictional. At least he now employs an effective specialist in foreign-policy fictions.