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There and Back Again

Bush's former advisor on Iraq and Afghanistan takes time off at the Kennedy School

Meghan L. O’Sullivan at her  class, “Central Challenges of American Foreign Policy,” which she co-teaches with Graham J. Allison Jr. ’62.
Meghan L. O’Sullivan at her class, “Central Challenges of American Foreign Policy,” which she co-teaches with Graham J. Allison Jr. ’62.
By Nini S. Moorhead, Crimson Staff Writer

In her office in a quiet corner of the Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center fellow Meghan L. O’Sullivan is surrounded by photographs from Iraq. She points to one that was a gift from Gen. David H. Petraeus—a snapshot of the pair standing together. In another picture, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani gives O’Sullivan a kiss on the cheek at the UN General Assembly meeting in 2006. A third shows O’Sullivan briefing a serious-looking President Bush in the Oval Office.

O’Sullivan spins in her chair to display her computer’s desktop background. In the shot, a casually dressed O’Sullivan sits cross-legged on a rug next to a colleague against the setting sun. O’Sullivan said the photograph is from a town hall meeting with over 200 tribal leaders in June 2003.

“At the time, there was no electricity in the country, and they live maybe 200 miles south of Baghdad, and they had no official way of knowing what was going on. I came there and tried to tell them, ‘This is what is happening in Baghdad, but what do you want in a post-Saddam Iraq?’” O’Sullivan said in an interview, her first on-the-record conversation since she resigned from the Bush administration last April.

If anyone embodies the successes and failures of the Iraq war, it is the 39-year-old O’Sullivan. In 2003, she was on the first civilian convoy into Baghdad with Gen. Jay M. Garner, the first director of reconstruction. She eventually became a key official for the Coalition Provisional Authority, advising its chief, L. Paul Bremer III, and Ryan C. Crocker, the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, on political issues.

In 2004, O’Sullivan left Baghdad for the White House to serve as Bush’s top advisor on Iraq and Afghanistan at the National Security Council. O’Sullivan was also in charge of coordinating the various government agencies involved with Iraq policy.

O’Sullivan said she visited Baghdad every few months for a week or so. At the request of Petraeus and Crocker, O’Sullivan returned to Baghdad for three months this past summer to help implement the “surge” policy, which boosted troop numbers by nearly 30,000 soldiers.

O’Sullivan has worked closely with almost every power player to come through Iraq and counts some among her personal friends. Earlier this month, O’Sullivan went skiing in Vermont with Bremer and his wife.


After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the former Brookings Institute scholar volunteered to help the authority on the humanitarian elements of reconstruction. O’Sullivan became what she called “the interface with the Iraqis.”

“I took a few security risks and I drove myself around Baghdad for the first year, and I got to know Iraqis,” O’Sullivan said. She dressed modestly in loose clothing but covered her head to meet with ayatollahs, the most senior members of Islamic clergy.

“I spent a lot of time in their homes. I got to know their families,” she said. “I went to their graduations. I went to their funerals. I went to their family reunions. I visited sixteen of the eighteen provinces in Iraq.”

As deputy director for governance, O’Sullivan helped Iraqis tackle some of the biggest questions facing the country.

“We had conversations—do you want a presidential system? Do you want a parliamentary system?” she said.

While some have criticized the slow pace of Iraqi political development, O’Sullivan finds it unsurprising.

“They’re like the debates that our country had during the civil rights era and debates that we had about states’ rights,” O’Sullivan said. “These are debates, which in our country took decades and we fought a civil war over. The hard question for Americans is how long do we wait? How long do we help provide security so that they can make these decisions?”

O’Sullivan said the Iraqi people kept her inspired even during “years where there was very little good news.”

She said she likes to tell a story about three ministers in the Iraqi government she knew very well.

“Three of them on separate occasions said to me, ‘I’m pretty sure that I’m going to be killed doing this job.’ And I would say, ‘Well, why’d you take the job?’” she recounted. “And each of them said to me, ‘If I don’t take this job, then I can’t blame the next person for not taking this job, and if I don’t take the job, then my country has no future.’”


O’Sullivan said she resigned from the administration because Iraq had consumed 99 percent of her life for five years, and she wanted to move on.

“I had to create a little space for some other things in my life,” said O’Sullivan, who now co-teaches the class, “Central Challenges of American Foreign Policy” with Belfer Center director Graham T. Allison, Jr. ’62.

But O’Sullivan said the transition out of Iraq has been difficult.

In October 2003, O’Sullivan was the victim of a terrorist attack when rockets hit the Hotel Al-Rashid, where many senior Coalition officials lived in Baghdad. Debris blocked her door, and she was forced to climb out of the window and crawl along a ledge 10 stories up  to escape the building, she remembered.

O’Sullivan said she enrolled in an introductory Arabic class this fall at the College but dropped out the second semester, saying she realized she was supposed to be relaxing.

“When you’re working on Iraq—whether you’re in Washington or Baghdad—you never wake up and think, what is the meaning of life? You have a purpose,” O’Sullivan said. “When you come back—it depends on what you’re doing—but a lot of people struggle with that kind of loss of purpose.”

—Staff Writer Nini S. Moorhead can be reached at

For comprehensive coverage of the Iraq War's impact at Harvard five years later, check out The Crimson's Iraq Supplement.

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