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September 12, 2013 12:56 PM Think Tank Icarus

By Ed Kilgore

Today’s big cautionary tale involves a young woman named Elizabeth O’Bagy, who, it seems, committed three extremely common crimes in the strange world of D.C. think tanks: she padded her resume, she chose a very narrow concentration to advance herself quickly, and she took on but did not choose to disclose an advocacy-group affiliation that presumably helped her make ends meet and gave her contacts.

But all these little tactics to give O’Bagy an edge vaulted her from an internship to big-time celebrity in not much more than a year when her specialty, Syria policy, suddenly became the center of the universe in Washington. Combined with her neoconnish orientation on the subject, this coincidence made her an extremely hot commodity, beloved of John McCain, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.

It’s not entirely clear who initially dropped a dime on O’Bagy (ThinkProgress’ Zach Beauchamp figured out many of the details, particularly about her bogus doctorate from Georgetown; turns out she wasn’t even in a doctoral program), but her credibility collapsed even more rapidly than it appeared, and she was fired from her perch at the Institute for the Study of War. At the height of one of Washington’s fastest careers, O’Bagy is now been given a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

Beauchamp uses the Icarus metaphor to describe her rise and fall. Foreign Policy’s Daniel Drezner holds her story out as a parable for “those 20-somethings thinking about faking it so they can make it.”

But the O’Bagy case reminds me of David Brooks’ half-serious claim back in the 1990s (sorry, his Weekly Standard piece “How To Become Henry Kissinger” does not appear to be available online any more) that the cool thing about working for a think tank was that there are no actual qualifications for suddenly presuming to advise presidents and Congresses. Sounding authoritative on the Issue of the Day, being able to gravely say what politicians of this or that stripe want to hear, having some sort of institutional backing that sounds established and legitimate, and in some cases, just looking camera-ready—it’s a formula for instant success. But it’s a reminder of the market vacuum Washington think tanks first arose to fill, created by the total inability of academia, with its plodding credentialism and self-absorbed methods of research and presentation and its wordy and rumpled stars, to serve up politically useful testimony and op-eds and electronic media appearances on demand. O’Bagy is just an egregious example of a very common phenomenon, and should serve as an object lesson not just to young comets in Washington but to the various institutions in the Emerald City she temporarily gamed.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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