10:55 a.m. October 3, 2013

Elizabeth O'Bagy: Human Resource

Remember Elizabeth O'Bagy? She’s the 26-year-old "Syria expert" who used to show up on CNN and Fox, dressed like a junior banker, telling us all that the Syrian opposition was really a nice, reliable group of guys. Well, you won’t be seeing her on TV anytime soon. After zooming to the top of the wonk-world in the summer of 2013, she crashed hard in September, when it came out that she didn’t have the Ph.D. she claimed.

But the story had another twist: two weeks after being fired, O’Bagy was hired by Sen. John McCain, who O’Bagy had shepherded through a series of meetings with the FSA back in May. O’Bagy is now a “legislative aide” for McCain, using her sincere-sounding, convincingly inarticulate manner to persuade his colleagues to bomb someplace new.

The trouble is that O’Bagy’s crimes are only marginally connected to her crude lie about having a Ph.D. O’Bagy is a joiner; that’s what’s wrong with her, and with thousands of others like her who are worming their way up through Washington right now. Faking the degree was a lie too far, but that particular lie was the most harmless she ever told. It was a simple tactical mistake, claiming the doctorate. If she hadn’t done that, she’d be in place, ready to tell much more destructive lies, like all the O’Bagy facsimiles in the D.C. Metropolitan area.

The fact that America considers O’Bagy’s lie about her resume more important than her lies about Syria is what really frightens me about her story. It’s as if telling extremely dangerous lies about the actual world is just business as usual, but lying about your resume is a mortal sin. And, unfortunately, that tallies with my experience of this culture. I wish it didn’t, but it does.

As for the fake degree, it’s pretty simple. Some Ph.D.s matter; some don’t. If you have a Ph.D. in Engineering, I honor you, because you can presumably build bridges that won’t fall down immediately. And if you have a Ph.D. in Physics, I acknowledge myself your inferior. But a Ph.D. in “International Relations”? Bah, if one may say so. And one may, because one has a Humanities Ph.D. oneself, and so one knows goddamn well it means nothing except that you wasted your best years groveling to tenured egos and citing every other pedant who ever wrote on your topic, whether their work made sense or not, so that you could keep the daisy-chain of citations and tenure going while the entire profession crumbled from accumulated rot.

Getting outraged about faking anything related to that dismal, moribund world deserves the response Catherine Barkley gives the hero of “A Farewell to Arms” when he agonizes about leaving the front:

"I feel like a criminal. I've deserted from the army."

"Darling, please be sensible… It's only the Italian army."

O’Bagy’s real crime is the kind that’s rewarded 99 times out of 100. Even when recognized as conscious deceit, this kind of lying is taken for granted, treated as a matter of skill, not morality. It’s the stock in trade of the world she was trying to join, and if she’d been a little more patient and careful—if she’d known that in that world resumes are sacred and nothing else matters—she wouldn’t have had her little fall.

And her worst mistake was her humility, thinking that she needed to claim a Ph.D. That wasn’t what the TV producers and war promoters liked about her. There are plenty of fully certified Ph.D.s in the world, but you don’t see CNN and Fox producers lining up to get them on. O’Bagy had something those gargoyles never had: an innocent, All-American face and voice.

Even after her temporary fall, TIME Magazine wistfully recalled her perfect looks and manner:

“Cable television bookers were ecstatic: an attractive young woman who could talk eloquently about Syria.”

That’s a very odd remark. As several articles have pointed out, the war in Syria has given many young, female journalists the chance to make their names.

And, since TIME brought up the face-fascism angle, you’d have to say that by any reasonable standard, many of these reporters are more “attractive” than O’Bagy. Virtually all of them are more articulate as well. Mina al-Oraibi, who appears on the CNN clip cited above, is one example, along with Rasha Elass, Rania Abouzeid, and Jenan Moussa.

But none of those women appealed to talk-show producers like O’Bagy. Of course O’Bagy’s pro-FSA slant helped her with the warmonger media, but the truth is that almost all English-language reporters in Syria have the same slant, including al-Oraibi. What made O’Bagy more “attractive” than these other candidates for TV time was that, unlike them, her face and voice announced that she was pure American.

In this way, O’Bagy’s hesitant, inarticulate speech and American-Gothic posture worked in her favor. American audiences prefer an awkward, halting inflection to the easy fluency of someone like al-Oraibi, an honors graduate of London University.

In fact, for the many hardcore xenophobes in the US media, it almost seemed like O’Bagy was the only human being to witness the war in Syria. TIME Magazine implies as much:

“O’Bagy became the de facto expert on Syria because she was virtually the only person with first-hand knowledge of what has become one of the murkiest of modern wars, seen by the West mostly in a collection of YouTube videos and frontline tweets.”

Read that sentence carefully. I certainly had to. I couldn’t believe it said what I thought it did—that O’Bagy was “the only person with first-hand knowledge” of the war in Syria. You won’t find a more ingenuous blurt than that. I’m sure that Jay Newton-Small, the guy who wrote that sentence, knows perfectly well that there are millions of people living in Syria, experiencing the war first-hand. He’s probably aware that thousands of those people speak English at least as well as O’Bagy, and Arabic or Kurdish far better. Mina al-Oraibi’s English is at least as fluent as O’Bagy’s, but al-Oraibi has a faint accent, her skin has a slight olive tinge, and her name a rather Middle Eastern sound. That was enough to give O’Bagy the leading role.

O’Bagy’s all-American manner only became necessary in 2012. Earlier, in 2011, when protests against Assad started popping up on the U.S. news, there was no need to sell the story because it seemed to be a simple good vs. evil narrative, with the rebels on the side of good, just like in Star Wars. But that didn’t go very well. In fact, the results were sometimes ludicrous. Here, for example, is a Washington Post story from May 2011, portraying the Sunni uprising as a revolt by “pro-democracy” Syrians over inadequate WiFi:

“The Syrian people say they are protesting against the repressive measures of Assad’s regime, including a tightening of Internet censorship, expanded use of travel bans, and the arrest of political prisoners. Two hundred Web sites are inaccessible in Syria…”

Yeah, sure, it was all about banned websites. At the time that story appeared, I was living in Saudi Arabia, where any website that threatens the Wahhabi sensibility is blocked. The last attempt to count banned sites in Saudi came up with a total of 1,353, almost seven times as many as WaPo claims Assad was blocking. If net censorship was the spark of revolution, Riyadh would be nothing but black smoke and rubble, with fat Mutaween and skinny techies sniping at each other in the ruins.

There was a lot of this sort of nonsense through the first year of the war. But as the atrocity videos piled up on YouTube, it became difficult, even for Washington journalists with no more gag reflex than a deep-throated buzzard, to portray Syria as anything but a sectarian nightmare.

That was a problem for the intervention lobby, and O’Bagy was part of their solution. Americans were already getting news from Syria, but it was the wrong kind of news for anyone pushing intervention. As TIME said, before O’Bagy showed up, the war was “…seen by the West mostly in a collection of YouTube videos and frontline Tweets.”

You might think these “YouTube videos and frontline Tweets” would be an excellent way to see what was going on in Syria. All those videos have been a godsend for serious war nerds like “Brown Moses,” aka Eliot Higgins.

He’s been able to come up with several scoops on the weaponry used in the war without leaving the U.K., thanks to all those videos.

But it’s hard work looking at all those videos, reading all those Tweets, cutting and pasting them into Google Translate and trying to make sense of the machine’s translations from Arabic. And that job got nastier as the war dragged on. In the spring of 2013, the notion of good rebels crashed forever when atrocity videos started coming out. If you look at a timeline of the Syrian war, as recalled by mainstream Western liberals, you’ll see that at the beginning of 2013, the stories are no longer about Assad-regime crimes alone, but those committed by both sides. This was when the new paradigm, Syria-as-Hopeless-Mess, started to sink in among Western news consumers, especially after the Sunni fighters started posting intentionally gruesome videos like Abu Saqqar’s famous infomercial on how to prepare lung sushi.

The public—the rubes, as Hunter S. would say—wanted no part of a war that featured such cuisine. But a big chunk of those who mattered, including the Saudis and their Beltway clients, still demanded intervention. That’s when O’Bagy’s All-American looks became truly valuable to the war party. Her media profile peaked on August 30, 2013, when she published an analysis of the Syrian opposition in the Wall Street Journal.

It stood out even by WSJ op-ed standards. For one thing, in the whole 1,000-word article, there wasn’t a single mention of the Kurds, who are 10% of the Syrian population and a major player in the many little wars of Northern and Eastern Syria. There was a map of Syria accompanying the article, and there too, not a single mention of the Kurds. Syria was divided, according to this map, into three parts: Those controlled by the Assad regime, those controlled by “moderate” rebels, and those controlled by “extremist” rebels. Each sector was marked off distinctly, as if these zones of control were as precise as suburban property lines.

I was so shocked that I wrote a puzzled Tweet next morning:

@TheWarNerd: WSJ version of Syria boosts moderates, doesn't mention Kurds at all.

The article was as crude and dishonest as the map. O’Bagy simply asserted that most of the Syrian opposition is “moderate”’ that the “extremists” aren’t mixed with the moderates but isolated in easily sidelined groups; and that these extremists only constitute 15-20% of the opposition anyway.

Everything in that article contradicted what better journalists had been saying about Syria. The map was a joke; there are no simple Mason-Dixon lines separating Syrian factions. Groups control what they can hold, and since the Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that there are about 1,200 armed groups operating in Syria, it’s impossible to carve the country into simple moderate/extremist chunks.

The author’s name, Elizabeth O’Bagy, didn’t mean much to me at the time, but the article was so weird, so obviously wrong, that I Googled her and realized that she was the well-groomed, presentable young white woman I’d seen repeating the pro-intervention line in several interviews.

That article, and the TV appearance she made the same day, made her so visible she turned into a target. Within two weeks, she was fired from the Kagans’ Institute for the Study of War, no longer useful as an interventionist shill. And two weeks after being fired, she was hired by John McCain.

The moral of this story isn’t as simple as the devil taking care of his own. People like O’Bagy aren’t cartoon villains. They usually think of themselves as very moral people, with a back-story emphasizing the saintly genesis of their careers. The way O’Bagy explained herself to TIME Magazine is a perfect example of this auto-hagiography:

“Born into one of the few non-Mormon families in Holiday, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, O’Bagy’s interest in Islam was cemented when her classmates ostracized the one Arab boy in her high school after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.”

This virtuous legend may even be true, more or less. But virtue always seems to get mixed up with careerism in these origin-stories, until getting a promotion, or a tenure-track job, or making partner, is indistinguishable from the triumph of good.

These are the joiners, and their biggest asset is knowing early on which world they want to join. For them, an American high school is good training, because joining their chosen world is very much like making it in the clique-driven world of tenth grade.

O’Bagy was a precocious joiner. She had decided by the time she finished high school that she wanted to be a Washington D. C. insider. She went to Georgetown, majored in Arabic, and did two years in Cairo, learning the language.

The fact that she learned Arabic is actually rather impressive. I tried to learn Arabic myself, or at least carried the textbooks around, as a first-year student at Berkeley, and didn’t have much luck. My memories are a little vague because I was suicidally depressed, unable to bathe, study or speak during my time as a commuting undergrad. Still, I seem to remember that only a few of my classmates had much luck picking up the language from our Palestinian instructor. And they were a highly motivated group, too. Most were proud members of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. who’d been tasked with Arabic outreach. Ellis G., the leader of the group, even wore a patch for the FDJ, the East German youth group, on his ratty jacket. At the time, it didn’t seem odd that I was sitting in a small classroom on the top floor of Dwinelle Hall chanting Arabic first-conditional sentences with about half the membership of CPUSA. My main concern at the time was to find a corner of the room where my stink wouldn’t impinge on anyone else’s olfactory space, and where our mournful instructor, Mr. Zeidan, would be less likely to call on me.

So I give O’Bagy full credit for learning Arabic and especially for doing two years in Cairo. What seems odd to me is that she spent all that time there without noticing that terms like “moderate” and “extremist,” as used in America, just don’t apply. You learn things over there, whether you want to or not, and they don’t fit those check-boxes.

Like the friendly Jordanian who shared an office with me, insisted on bringing me tea, then mentioned, just to be making conversation, that his son was engaged to a nice Ukrainian woman, a doctor, adding “…I have forbidden it because I do not know the parents.” Weeks later, he added during a long discussion of Ramadan rules that if any of his sons changed their religion, “…he would have to die. Of course I would be sad but he would have to die.” Is that a moderate or an extremist? The only box you can check is “does not apply.” He’s a patriarch, in the old way, a conservative. Not Al Qaeda, but not Jimmy Stewart either. It’s fatuous to force him, and the hundreds of millions like him, into something like a Dems vs. GOP binary.

But why do I remember that moment anyway? Because as a vindictive, failed joiner, I collect things that don’t fit, and dream of bringing them home to bother people with. Here we genuflect briefly to Nietzsche’s brilliant question, “What in us really wants ‘truth’?” For ornery, failed joiners like me, the answer is “Truth, schmooth! I want revenge; I want to spoil the party.”

Someone like O’Bagy has other lusts. For an unspoiled aspirant like her, the big picture is what’s valuable, the shared values, not the anomalies. So she deletes moments like my conversation with the Jordanian from her Cairo memories.

OK, I can understand that, though it seems pretty contemptible. But then, using the same selective perceptions she tours Syria and finds, in the middle of a vicious sectarian war, a bunch of “moderates.” That’s much harder to understand, and impossible to forgive.

Or so you’d think. In reality, everyone seems to take that sort of lie for granted. It was when O’Bagy violated the real code of her Dilbert-world and lied about her credentials that she was purged. We have to revise Nietzsche’s question to fit that world, give it a Dilbert-y punchline:

Q: “What in us really wants ‘Truth’?”
A: The Human Resources Department.