While most of Washington was preoccupied with playing the Plame game in late October, the Bush Administration took an apparent turn toward appeasement—or as its advocates would call it, “nuance” and “realism”—in Iraq and Afghanistan with the appointment of a high-level National Security Council official whose worldview more resembles that of the former President Bush than the current one.
As Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was winding down the investigation that resulted in the indictment of former Cheney Chief of Staff Scooter Libby on Oct. 28, Meghan O’Sullivan was elevated to the lofty position of Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan. This makes 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 October 6—for the first time—that the enemy we face is not just terrorism, but radical Islam. Yet if 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, 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 Baathists. 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 O’Sullivan does not see the world as President Bush does should come as little surprise, considering that her mentor is Richard Haass, currently the head of the Council on Foreign Relations and who was State Department policy director under Powell until 2003. She followed Haass from the left-leaning Brookings Institute in 2001, and while at Foggy Bottom, she echoed his calls for building warmer relations with the mullah-ocracy in Tehran.
At a July 2000 Brookings press conference moderated by Haass, O’Sullivan noted her sharp distaste for the “rogue regimes” designation because it was “pejorative,” and she complained that the rogue label suggested that countries that sponsor terrorism “were beyond rehabilitation and that the policy options (were limited) to only punitive ones.”
Though many in the foreign policy community in the late 1990’s had been lulled into what was believed to be a high-minded approach to tyrannies and terrorism, few were quite as steadfast in those beliefs immediately following September 11. O’Sullivan, however, was.
Just ten days after the attacks—and less than 24 hours after Bush’s famous address—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 President 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.”
Most striking about O’Sullivan’s comments that day is that 9/11 actually strengthened her “nuanced” view of terrorism. She remarked, “I would say that this new environment provides an opportunity to unlump this category of countries.”
After joining the administration, O’Sullivan’s “nuance” led her to support both the Baathists and Islamists while serving in the Coalition Provisional Authority. She fiercely fought against removing Saddam’s henchmen from the new government, and she bitterly opposed the sweeping de-Baathification order signed by CPA Administrator Paul Bremer.
Yet while she sided with the Baathists, she also told the Islamist Dawa Party that the U.S. had no problem with it taking over the Ministry of Education, according to a former CPA official. Notes the official, “There was a real scramble to undue that damage.”
If 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 President 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 the one of the most important weapons in bringing long-term peace and freedom to those countries. But if President Bush really believes that, then why did Meghan O’Sullivan get promoted?