In 2005 I wrote a piece about Meghan L. O’Sullivan, but never posted the thing because it was speculative. There was something very strange about this former model’s elevation, for no very obvious reason, to Special Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite aside from MLO’s minimal qualifications, her published views about foreign policy should have been anathema to Bush. In fact, some neocons loathed her.
Even more oddly, after joining the Bush administration O’Sullivan transformed herself into a true-believer. I’d begun investigating her in the first place when I stumbled across some of her gushing comments about Bush’s Iraq policies.
How had a Brookings neolib infiltrated this White House, and why had she become an abject Bush-bot? I had my suspicions, but I chose not to indulge them in 2005.
Now, just as the WH needs every bit of Iraq-hype it can muster for a “fight is as noble as any our nation has undertaken”, we learn that MLO is leaving the administration without any job lined up. It’s time to ask some probing questions about her rise and fall.
MLO had worked for Sen. Moynihan, and then sponsored by Richard Haass she boarded the gravy train at Brookings. She published a few (undistinguished) articles urging a ‘realist’ foreign policy using ‘smart sanctions’ against Hussein’s Iraq, rather than shutting down all trade. She also favored a ‘nuanced’ response to terrorism. When she followed Haass to Powell’s State Department in Nov. 2001, she fell afoul of Rumsfeld over planning for the occupation of Iraq, and at one point was ordered to leave the Pentagon “by sundown”. Going to Iraq as Jay Garner’s assistant, her policy views came under attack from neocons In fact, Rumsfeld wanted her sacked.
Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Garner he could not keep her in Iraq, a decision Garner later concluded came from Vice President Cheney, because O’Sullivan was considered too close to pragmatists at the State Department. But Garner persuaded Rumsfeld to let him keep her, and she later became a top aide to Bremer…
In short, the neocons despised Meghan O’Sullivan. And it’s hard to point to any actual achievements while in Baghdad during the first chaotic year of the occupation.
Curious, then, that she managed to get a job in 2004 with the National Security Council, and in Nov. 2005 was appointed to her current post as a top advisor to Bush. It’s not as if the neocons let up on her. In early 2005 Stephen Hadley stripped her of the Iran portfolio under the NSC for being “too dismissive of Iranian dissidents” and being a proponent of engagement with Iran. And after O’Sullivan was elevated to Bush’s Special Assistant, the Washington Times denounced her in a widely disseminated op-ed.
Meghan O’Sullivan was elevated to the lofty position of Deputy National Security Adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan. This makes Miss O’Sullivan equal in rank to fellow NSC staffer Elliott Abrams, and arguably gives her more influence than many assistant secretaries.
The timing of the promotion was particularly curious, as it came just weeks after the president made a bold step in the direction of moral clarity when articulating on Oct. 6 — for the first time — that the enemy we face is not just terrorism, but radical Islam. Yet if Miss O’Sullivan’s career is defined by anything, it is a worldview colored with thousands of shades of gray, with barely a hint of black and white.
Before the Iraq war, Miss O’Sullivan was the co-creator of the so-called “smart sanctions” that Saddam easily manipulated time and again, and after his regime fell, she was one of the most passionate defenders of senior Ba’athists. At other points in recent years, she has tacitly supported Islamists’ attempted takeover of the post-Saddam Iraqi education system, and she is widely seen as a leading advocate for engaging the Iranian mullahs.
That Miss O’Sullivan does not see the world as Mr. Bush does should come as little surprise, considering that her mentor is Richard Haass…
Just ten days after the attacks — and less than 24 hours after Mr. Bush’s famous address — Miss O’Sullivan forcefully argued against the president’s moral clarity. At a panel discussion, she claimed that the “state sponsors of terrorism” label is counterproductive for fighting terrorism. She reasoned that some states’ support “involves simply letting groups come in and out of their territory to operate.”
Though she did not mention him at all by name, it was a clear swipe at Mr. Bush, who the previous night famously stated, “Any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”…
If Miss O’Sullivan’s record, including her service in the Bush administration, makes anything clear, it is that she represents the views of the very foreign-policy establishment Mr. Bush is attempting to challenge head-on. That mentality of stability at all costs and ignoring evil or simply calling it something less offensive is what helped create the world that made September 11 possible.
With both Iraq and Afghanistan in perilous positions, moral clarity would seem to be one of the most important weapons in bringing long-term peace and freedom to those countries. But if Mr. Bush really believes that, then why did Meghan O’Sullivan get promoted?
So I’m not the only one who was gob-smacked by O’Sullivan’s ability to clamber ever higher under Bush. We know that Bush does not put high value on intelligence—much less knowledge, insight, or training. So that can’t be the key to the favor he’s shown to her. True, she has a D.Phil. from Oxford, but she shares that distinction with some exceptionally dull people as I can say from personal experience. Anyhow, O’Sullivan has no great expertise in the areas for which she is Bush’s Personal Assistant, as David Corn laid out last fall.
The expert explained that many factors shape the difficult Pakistani-Afghan relationship. He pointed to the decades-long conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan and mentioned the Durand Line, the supposed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The 1,600-mile-long line, imposed on Afghanistan by the British in 1893, divides Pashtun and Baluch regions and separates Afghanistan from territory it has claimed as its own. Afghanistan has never officially recognized the Durand Line, which has been a great source of strife between the two countries.
By referring to the Durand Line, the expert was noting that US efforts in the region are complicated by pre-9/11 history. O’Sullivan, according to this expert (who wishes not to be named), didn’t know what the Durand Line was. The expert was stunned. O’Sullivan is the most senior Bush Administration official handling Afghanistan policy. If she wasn’t familiar with this basic point, US policy-making on Afghanistan was in trouble.…
The problem is that O’Sullivan, who is in her mid-30s, is not an expert in the field and does not have the stature to take on heavyweights in the Administration…
Come now: How does an inexperienced young person with no real background in the region, especially one whose recorded views (such as they are) go against the entire thrust of George Bush’s policies, develop a relationship with the President that’s sufficiently close she can be made his Personal Assistant? It just seems highly improbable.
On top of this, there is the remarkable fact that Meghan O’Sullivan transformed herself into an genuine Bush-bot during the three years she’s been working inside the White House. As evidence, we have some extremely cheery Ask the White House sessions she did on-line, which painted absurdly rosy pictures of the situation in Iraq even as the civil war there grew. This puff piece on O’Sullivan by court biographer Elisabeth Bumiller shows that she had become one of the darlings of Bush & Co.
Although she does not make major decisions – the administration’s policy is run by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – she is important because of her closeness to Bush and her role in helping to form his thinking…
O’Sullivan, crisp and wary in a recent interview in her office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, would say little more about her conversations with Bush. But people who have seen her brief Bush say she has been succinct, unpretentious, full of facts and cheerful – exactly what Bush likes.
MLO also became a mover and shaker to some degree, or at least an enforcer for the Great Man:
A former National Security Council official said Monday that the White House tried to silence his criticism of its Middle East policies by ordering the CIA to censor an op-ed column he wrote.
Flynt Leverett, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, or NSC, and a former CIA analyst, said the White House told a CIA censor board to excise parts of a 1,000-word commentary on U.S. policy toward Iran that he had offered to the New York Times…
Leverett said that in discussing the case with a CIA official, he was told that “the White House has equities” in the issue, meaning it was concerned about potentially classified material.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Leverett speculated that senior NSC officials, such as deputy national security advisors Elliott Abrams or Meghan L. O’Sullivan, had authorized their subordinates to intervene.
Whether or not she was involved in this particular affair, the allegation only makes sense if DC insiders generally accept that MLO has taken on the role of Bush’s defender. More and more, Bush needs all the assistance he can get in that quarter.
So what the heck happened to O’Sullivan’s remarkable closeness to Bush? As Warren Strobel reports, she doesn’t have much to say about the matter:
Meghan L. O’Sullivan, who has played a key behind-the-scenes role in implementing Bush’s controversial Iraq policies over the past four years, will leave later this spring…
O’Sullivan, 37, known for her 100-hour work weeks and steady optimism over the eventual outcome in Iraq, said in an interview that with the completion of months-long reviews of policy in Iraq and Afghanistan – which she also oversees – she felt it was the right time for a change.
“There’s never a good time to leave this kind of job. … But (I decided) this would be as good a time as any,” she said, adding that she was happy with the outcome of both reviews.
O’Sullivan, who says she’s uncertain of her next job, helped craft the strategy that Bush announced in January, including an increase of 28,000 U.S. troops to help secure Baghdad.
Leaving without a more lucrative job to leap to? It’s almost never done in DC, except in cases of firing. Peter Baker at WaPo adds a further layer of murk to this decision:
O’Sullivan confirmed her resignation in an interview yesterday and said she will move on this spring to pursue other opportunities, probably outside government. After four years working nonstop on Iraq, she said she departs not out of frustration but with optimism that the plan she helped President Bush develop in January will restore stability…
“The administration’s policy has been a tragic failure, and she has been a central element of our policymaking,” said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University professor who worked for the CPA and became a tough critic of the president’s handling of Iraq. But Diamond said “the majority of the blame needs to rest at the foot of the higher officials,” especially Bush.
Diamond said he admires O’Sullivan’s intelligence and commitment to public service and urged her in 2004 not to take the White House job. “I like her,” he said, “and I saw this being a failure, and I saw the president not changing course in a way that would lead to success, so I thought she was going to be associated with failure.”
Why did O’Sullivan ignore the advice from her friend? And how does she transform her position so rapidly vis a vis Bush, from an outsider with distance and at least nominal perspective on his failures, to a favored insider and cheerleader for the President?
Was Meghan O’Sullivan just a suck-up? Or does her rise (and now fall) represent a larger story?
I wonder whether this is an example of the moderately intelligent falling head over heels for Bush, or his aura of power, notwithstanding everything. There are an awful lot of Bush-bots and former Bush-bots in this country. Perhaps one of them could shed light on Meghan O’Sullivan’s career in the White House.