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An Exit Toward Soul-Searching

Bush staffers Tony Snow, Dana M. Perino, Dan Bartlett, Karl Rove and Nicolle Wallace, from left, last year. All but Perino have left the White House.
Bush staffers Tony Snow, Dana M. Perino, Dan Bartlett, Karl Rove and Nicolle Wallace, from left, last year. All but Perino have left the White House. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

"I know the intentions were noble and the arguments to go to war -- we believed there were weapons of mass destruction and he was a malevolent figure," said Wehner, who was White House director of strategic initiatives until August. "The fact that it didn't go so well is something you struggle with."

Wehner, who recalled losing sleep in 2006 when the war seemed to be further slipping away, blames former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "It was mishandled in a lot of ways," he said. "The administration went in with a plausible approach and a plausible strategy, but it was wrong. The secretary of defense didn't make the adjustments that he ought to have and there's a cost to that and that's something you live with."

The subsequent troop buildup, Wehner added, has given him hope again. "I think we have a decent shot at a decent outcome," he said. "But mistakes were made and there's a cost to it."

One cost has been friendship. Some people who were once close no longer talk with him, Wehner said. "The view is 'Pete was a nice guy, but he was taken over by the dark side, joined Rove world.' "

One who shares that view is journalist Joe Klein. "There are a number of us who were friendly with Pete back in the day who think he drank the Kool-Aid," Klein said. In May, Klein used his Time magazine blog to directly challenge a Wehner essay on politics and the war, chastising his onetime friend for ignoring "the lives lost and shattered" and the "vast damage" to U.S. standing done by the Iraq war. "I have two pieces of career advice," Klein wrote to Wehner. "Stop writing this swill and think about penance. Take some time to clear your head, a lot of time, and pay for your sins by emptying bedpans at Walter Reed."

Asked about such criticism, Wehner said he did not want to discuss anyone in particular. But he said he has been pained by the personal estrangements caused by the war. "We were friends," he said, "and I'm sad about that."

'Is This Worth It?'

Probably no one in the White House has seen Iraq up close more than Meghan O'Sullivan. She served as an adviser to initial U.S. occupation Administrator L. Paul Bremer in Baghdad before Bush brought her to the White House, where she became deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan. When she decided to move on last spring, Bush asked her to wait for a few months and spend the summer in Iraq helping to push political leaders there toward reconciliation, a task as yet incomplete.

The dreams followed her home. "I'm not dreaming of Iraq imploding or anything like that," she said. "But I'm often in Iraq. Or I'll dream about something Iraq-related or something that's happening. Sometimes it might be particularly movielike. But a lot of it is just because I'm processing what I've done all day." The now-former aide corrected herself: "What I did all day."

O'Sullivan was at the center of some of the most important decisions about Iraq, including some blamed for exacerbating the tensions, but she also takes pride in helping write what became an early draft of the new Iraqi constitution and helping usher in democratic elections. The daughter of a schoolteacher and an engineer in Lexington, Mass., she used to assign herself reports on the world in the second grade. One day she wrote a report on Palestine, only to have a teacher keep her after school to explain, "There is no more Palestine."

Her intelligence and passion for Iraq impressed Bush and other admirers, but some on the ground bristled at what they saw as micromanagement from Washington -- "the term 7,000-mile screwdriver was invented for Meghan," groused one official -- and her youth made others think she was in over her head. She turned 38 the day of Bush's latest address to the nation on Iraq last month. She has become so identified with Iraq that friends counseled her years ago to get out "because I was going to ruin my career." She ignored them. "I didn't do any of this for personal advancement," she said.

But the war weighs on her. She still thinks regularly of the Iraqi leaders she has known who have been killed. "There is a certain heaviness that one carries with you when you have been in any realm of responsibility over something as serious as this and when there have been so many sacrifices," she said. "That does stay with you and you're conscious of it every day."

She went on: "I never tried to shake that. That's part of reality and it should help shape your thinking. No one who works on a war should be free from thinking of the sacrifices that come with it. You're always thinking: Is this worth it? Is this going to be worth it? What justifies the level of sacrifices on both the U.S. and Iraqi side? I believe as long as the possibility of being successful's there, you can justify continuing the effort."

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