Leaving the War Room

Iraq Adviser Departs Optimistic

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Meghan O'Sullivan, the president's deputy national security adviser who has overseen the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through a particularly tumultuous period, has decided to leave the White House after helping reformulate policies in both countries to deal with rising violence.

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.

"I'm leaving with enormous confidence in the strategy and the very, very strong belief that this is the right strategy at this time," she said. "It's the strategy that has the best prospect for success."

O'Sullivan, 37, has been at the heart of the most important project of the Bush presidency -- the invasion, occupation and continuing war in Iraq -- from the beginning. She became involved in Iraq policy at age 33 before U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein, then went to Baghdad for a year as a key official of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Since 2004, she has served as Bush's top Iraq adviser on the National Security Council.

Working for CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer, she helped write the transitional law that became the basis for the Iraqi constitution, and she said she is proud of the democratic institutions Iraq has begun to build. More recently, she helped lead the administration review that resulted in Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and she has been a critical interlocutor with Iraqi governments and various political figures.

"Meghan has done a great job," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said through a spokesman. "She has served this president with real distinction during a critical time in Iraq, as the president developed and put in place a new strategy. In this process Meghan has shown unfailing commitment and worked hard to implement the president's vision for a peaceful, stable and secure Iraq."

Critics, however, have questioned whether O'Sullivan was too young for such a challenge and whether the former Brookings Institution scholar with a master's degree and doctorate from Oxford University was too steeped in theory for the job. Others said that however impressive she may be, the net result of her tenure has been a costly war and enormous turmoil for the Iraqi people.

"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."

Robert D. Blackwill, Bush's chief Iraq adviser on the NSC staff before O'Sullivan, said she should not be faulted. "I'm sure she wishes that the situation in Iraq was a lot better than it is now, and it's a mess now, obviously," he said. "But I think it's probably too high a standard for someone in her position to hold her accountable in a primary way for either success or failure."

O'Sullivan arrived in Baghdad in April 2003 as an adviser to Jay Garner, the first Bush administrator, only to be caught in political crossfire. 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 and an intermediary with Iraqi leaders, particularly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a top Shiite group.

While other Americans stayed in the fortified Green Zone, O'Sullivan donned conservative clothes, covered her bright-red hair with a scarf and ventured out with an Iraqi driver to see what was happening in the country. Once when a rocket-propelled grenade hit a room next to hers in the al-Rashid Hotel and debris blocked her door, she climbed out onto a ledge 10 stories above the ground and shimmied her way to the safety of another window.

"This is Meghan O'Sullivan -- just cool and collected and grace under pressure," Blackwill said. Her experience, he added, means that "she knows more about Iraq and its political personalities than anyone in the administration, which is probably saying anyone in the West."

O'Sullivan acknowledged that there have been dark times in Iraq but said that they played no role in her decision. "If I were someone who's going to leave because I'm frustrated -- of course, there are frustrating things -- I would have left a long time ago," she said. "I'm leaving because I feel we have put in place an Iraq strategy that is a good plan."

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