When Meghan O’Sullivan was a little girl in the 1970s, her father traveled to Saudi Arabia for a business trip and brought her back a plastic Tic Tac box full of sand from the desert.
The gift captured her imagination and years later, O’Sullivan’s career would come to be defined in large part by that same region.
From 2004 to 2007, she served as deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan under the Bush administration, leaving behind a large footprint in both countries. But as many U.S. policymakers have learned, in the volatile and shifting sands of the Middle East, footprints often get left behind in the dust.
That’s especially true of Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries forever altered — for better or worse — by America’s invasion and subsequent rebuilding efforts.
O’Sullivan’s experience is emblematic of the complexities of stabilizing and rebuilding war-ravaged states, and while that experience is years away from the current turmoil upending the region, it still holds relevant insights for U.S. policymakers trying to make sense of the chaos.
O’Sullivan is perhaps best known for her work helming the Bush administration’s strategic policy review that ultimately led to a troop increase in Iraq coupled with a focus on counterinsurgency, public diplomacy and capacity-building — a strategy collectively known as the “surge.”
In 2008, after she had helped manage the Bush administration’s Iraq War strategy — including helping to craft Iraq’s interim constitution after the 2003 U.S. invasion — Esquire Magazine named her one of the most influential people of the century.
By most accounts, she was indeed highly influential within the Bush administration, despite her relatively young age. “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,” wrote The Washington Post’s Peter Baker in an April 3, 2007, article following her resignation as deputy national security advisor. “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.”
Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times pointed out in a June 12, 2006, article that Bush would receive a critical daily memo about Iraq written by O’Sullivan, “who colleagues say is instrumental in shaping Mr. Bush’s views.”
O’Sullivan — who holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from Oxford, where she wrote her dissertation on the Sri Lankan civil war — was often praised for her keen, succinct, scholarly analysis of the Iraq War.
At the same time, her advice was also informed by firsthand experience. While in Baghdad, where U.S. officials typically hunkered down 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,” Baker wrote.
In October 2003, a rocket hit her Baghdad hotel and she was forced to escape by walking along a narrow ledge outside her 10th-floor window.
Throughout her time in Baghdad, where she acted as a go-between for Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders, and at the White House, where she coordinated Iraq policy across various government agencies, O’Sullivan was steadfast in her belief that the key to resolving Iraq’s deep-seated sectarian fissures was rebuilding civic institutions and promoting political compromise.
While the 2007 surge is largely remembered for deploying over 20,000 U.S. troops to stabilize the country after sectarian fighting was slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the military strategy was a precursor to a broader political agenda, according to O’Sullivan.
She told us that up until the surge, the working assumption had been that if Iraqis worked out their political disagreements first, security would follow.
“We rethought that assumption in a pretty fundamental way and realized that violence had gotten to a level that security was so bad that it was not practical to expect Iraqi leaders, or Iraqis in general, to make big compromises on the political front in the face of such insecurity,” O’Sullivan said.
The purpose of the surge was to create “an environment in which Iraqis could resolve their political differences” through government, rather than through the bloodletting carried out by Sunni and Shiite militias, O’Sullivan added.
She said the surge had two important effects. First, it “helped catalyze” momentum behind what is known as the “Sunni awakening,” in which Sunni tribes agreed to partner with U.S. forces to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007. Second, it contributed to the decision by Muqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shiite cleric and influential militia leader, to agree to a ceasefire.”
The ceasefire, along with additional U.S. political and military resources, led to a steep drop in violence in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, according to O’Sullivan.
While the surge is credited with halting Iraq’s slide into civil war, not everyone agrees with the widely accepted narrative that it was an unmitigated success.
For one thing, it may not have even been necessary if it weren’t for the catastrophic decision, executed by O’Sullivan’s Coalition Provisional Authority boss, L. Paul Bremer, to disband the Iraqi army and remove Ba-ath Party members from government following Saddam Hussein’s ouster. That pushed legions of suddenly disenfranchised Sunnis to take up arms, fearing persecution by the majority Shiites now in power. Many of these disgruntled Sunnis who attacked U.S. forces would eventually morph into the Islamic State.
O’Sullivan takes a nuanced view of the controversial decision and its enduring ramifications.
“The policy of De-Ba’athification in Iraq ended up being deeply destabilizing and added to Sunni alienation from the post-Saddam government, which in turn helped fuel the insurgency,” she conceded.
“But it also would have been destabilizing to have left the Ba’ath Party intact and those who worked for it at senior levels in charge of Iraq politically and economically. So some policy was needed to address the ills of the Ba’ath Party, to keep the organization from recapturing the state — as it had done in the past — and to provide justice to people who had suffered under Ba’ath Party rule.
“The problem with the actual De-Ba’athification policy enacted was that it ended up probably being too sweeping in its construction,” she continued, “and that it was implemented in a political fashion, allowing some of the Iraqis in charge of the policy to use it to advance their own political agendas to the detriment of thousands of people.”
Since then, however, Iraq has made notable political gains, such as holding competitive parliamentary elections in 2018 that, after a long stretch of political jockeying, resulted in a coalition government that has vowed to be beholden to neither Iran nor the U.S. but to Iraqis as a whole.
Iraq also successfully wrested back large tracts of territory that had been seized by the Islamic State in 2014, when the group (also known as ISIS) capitalized on Sunni disillusionment with the government in Baghdad to expand its self-styled caliphate. The group’s brutal reign, however, eventually alienated Iraqis and helped the government, backed by U.S. military support, to dislodge the group.
But the national unity inspired by the Islamic State takeover proved fleeting. Widespread protests have erupted over endemic government corruption, unemployment and a lack of basic services, with more than 200 protesters killed so far. Security forces tried to violently suppress the protests, while the government shut down the internet and imposed a curfew, but the demonstrations have continued to rage throughout the country. [Shortly after this article went to press, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi agreed to resign in response to the unrest.]
The protests are a stark reminder that 16 years after the U.S. invasion, the Iraqi government still has not delivered a better life for its 37 million citizens.
O’Sullivan admits that “the situation is very much a mixed bag.”
“Iraq is re-emerging from its battle with ISIS in a much better position than most could have imagined five years ago when ISIS took control of nearly a third of the country. Its economy as a whole is improving, thanks to record levels of oil production and some growth in the non-oil sector. And it has received $30 billion in pledges from the international community to rebuild the parts of the country that were ravaged by ISIS and the war against it. That’s the good news,” O’Sullivan said.
“The bad news is that the north — the city of Mosul in particular — is still in terrible shape and the reconstruction task there is overwhelming. The consequences of success or failure there are huge, given that it could well determine whether another version of ISIS takes root in Iraq in the future. But, as we can see from the [recent] protests, there continues to be widespread dissatisfaction across all parts of Iraq, not just the Mosul area, as Iraqis grow increasingly frustrated with the gap between the wealth of their country and their low standards of living and basic services.”
Stay or Go?
Another recent concern is the potential re-emergence of the Islamic State after President Trump’s controversial decision to withdraw 1,000 U.S. troops from northeastern Syria who had been protecting America’s Kurdish allies from a Turkish invasion. The repercussions of that decision have been swift: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a military offensive against the Kurds; the Kurds partnered with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for protection; another U.S. adversary, Russia, has stepped in to fill the security vacuum; Republicans blasted Trump for abandoning a key ally that helped to contain the Islamic State; and hundreds of Islamic State detainees have escaped amid the chaos.
The crisis in Syria has raised fears of an Islamic State resurgence that could spill over into Iraq — where resentment has been growing that promises of postwar reconstruction have gone unfilled — potentially undoing the hard-fought gains there as well.
Trump’s abrupt pullout is just the latest policy shift in the perennial tug of war over America’s military presence in the Middle East, a dilemma that has bedeviled administrations of both parties.
O’Sullivan is diplomatic in her critiques of the drawdowns ordered by Obama and Trump, although she partly faults Obama for “the fact that we probably withdrew important military support, and therefore political support, too early … in 2011.” She said the withdrawal didn’t give the country’s competing political interests enough time to reconcile their differences, threatening Iraq’s fragile path to stability.
But other experts say that waiting until Iraq’s fragmented political tribes got their act together might have meant remaining in the country indefinitely. (For example, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, is accused of squandering the relative peace created by the surge to amass power and sideline the Sunnis and Kurds.) And it’s debatable whether the small residual force Obama proposed leaving behind would have made much of a difference anyway.
“The seeds of the American withdrawal in 2011 were sown by the architect of the Iraq War, President George W. Bush,” Brian McKeon, who served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden from 2009 to 2012, wrote in Just Security in 2018 in response to the critique that Obama withdrew troops from Iraq too soon.
McKeon noted that Bush had negotiated a status of forces agreement (SOFA) “explicitly” stipulating that U.S. forces would “withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”
“President Obama, of course, campaigned against the war, and ordered an orderly drawdown, consistent with the SOFA, soon after taking office,” McKeon wrote. “He agreed, nonetheless, to leave a small residual force of 5,000 troops but failed to reach agreement with Iraq over immunity protections for U.S. forces. It was not for lack of trying. I worked for Vice President Biden at the time; he had Iraqi political leaders on speed-dial and traveled to Iraq multiple times in the first Obama term.”
But the Bush administration faced the same sticking point of immunity for U.S. troops in its negotiations with al-Maliki’s government over the 2008 SOFA, according to O’Sullivan, who helped negotiate that agreement.
“We found a way around it with some very creative language that allowed Iraqis to say that they were not giving us blanket immunity but at the same time effectively did give us blanket immunity,” she said. “I wasn’t on the Obama negotiating team, but I suspect that there were some creative arrangements that could have been explored to further get over the hurdle.”
She added that two years after Obama’s departure order, American forces returned to Iraq — without a SOFA — to combat the rise of the Islamic State.
O’Sullivan did not comment on Obama’s decision to increase troops to fight the Islamic State or his own surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2009, although she said that Bush’s Iraq surge and Obama’s Afghanistan surge “are two very, very, very different situations.” She also argues that the Trump administration can learn from Bush’s Iraq strategy as it works to extricate the roughly 14,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan.
Eager to fulfill his campaign promise and pull those troops out, Trump pushed full-speed ahead this year with peace talks with the Taliban to end the 18-year war, despite criticism that those negotiations excluded the Afghan government.
The talks — led by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq while O’Sullivan served on the National Security Council — had made progress on a partial troop withdrawal in return for Taliban pledges not to allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist launching pad. But negotiations fell apart after stepped-up attacks by the Taliban and the backlash generated by Trump’s invitation to host the Taliban at Camp David shortly before the 18th anniversary of 9/11. Talks have yet to resume, although Trump has signaled he still plans to bring troops home.
In Afghanistan, “we really are at a crossroads,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve had three American presidents, all of whom at various times have increased the commitment to Afghanistan without really creating a platform for success there.”
While U.S. options are limited in Afghanistan, O’Sullivan said the challenge amounts to two choices: “depart and call it quits,” which she said does not serve U.S. interests, or use whatever leverage the U.S. has “to get an outcome that’s going to protect U.S. interests and hopefully advance Afghans’ interests as we perceive them.”
But O’Sullivan’s warning not to “call it quits” — which echoes a chorus of foreign policy establishment figures who say that any withdrawal should be based on conditions on the ground rather than arbitrary timelines — rings hollow to the Americans who voted for Trump in part because they were exasperated by endless Mideast wars. That includes Afghanistan — America’s longest war, which has killed tens of thousands of Afghans, along with over 3,500 U.S. and coalition soldiers, and cost American taxpayers roughly $1 trillion.
We asked O’Sullivan at what point should we reasonably say “enough” of this venture?
“However justifiably frustrated and tired the United States is with the war in Afghanistan, it cannot just decide to leave completely and under any circumstances if it wants to both secure the gains it has made and protect itself from future threats,” she argued.
“That, however, does not mean that the United States should continue to adhere to the status quo effort of the last 18 years. A change in approach is needed and, in fact, is what the administration has undertaken in authorizing direct talks between the United States and the Taliban. This has been a step in the right direction, although the chance of those talks succeeding has been compromised by the president’s repeated declarations that he intends to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, regardless of the outcome of the talks. Engaging in negotiations is important, and ultimately, we will need to make some compromises and take some risks on in order to come to an agreement. But we need to be prepared for a long slog at the negotiation table, and to bring in regional actors, if we are to leave Afghanistan with something that is sustainable and not likely to collapse into civil war after our departure.”
O’Sullivan’s portfolio has expanded significantly since her days focusing solely on Iraq and Afghanistan under President Bush (although we interviewed her while she was back in Washington for an annual reunion of members of the George W. Bush administration, attended by the former president and former Vice President Dick Cheney).
O’Sullivan, a native of Lexington, Mass., teaches international affairs at Harvard, where she is also director of the Geopolitics of Energy Project.
O’Sullivan’s new role as chair of the North American Group of the Trilateral Commission has also broadened her portfolio.
The Trilateral Commission was the brainchild of David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Founded in 1973 against the backdrop of a rising Japan and global friction, one of its central goals was to bring together high-level leaders to examine the common challenges facing Japan, Western Europe and North America.
“The commission’s original mission, to bring together advanced democracies to promote the underpinnings of the international system, to advance economic prosperity and liberal political order, is now needed much more than it was five or 10 years ago, kind of unexpectedly,” O’Sullivan said.
“We’re in a world where the advocates of that order have now become disrupters of it — the United States most obviously but not exclusively. We’re in a position where we need all the institutions that we can … basically advancing and protecting a rules-based order. So I think in that sense, the Trilateral Commission is more relevant than ever,” she added.
While its goals may be noble, the Trilateral Commission has also come under scrutiny for its closed-door meetings of international elites, and is even at the center of conspiracy theories comparing it to the likes of the Illuminati.
The commission “has always closely guarded its deliberations,” but O’Sullivan says transparency is key to the nongovernmental forum having an effect on policymakers with the ideas it develops.
Next March, the full commission will have its global meeting in Washington, D.C. The next meeting of the North American chapter will be in Mexico City in November. The gatherings won’t be “open doors” and they won’t “podcast every single session,” O’Sullivan said, but the organization is “starting to be more public about what we’re doing, trying to engage more with the public.”
“We need to talk about what we’re doing in order to have the impact that we want to have,” O’Sullivan said.
The Trilateral Commission is currently focusing on two issues, climate change and the future of capitalism. Both are major challenges facing every government, but they need to be solved collectively, even as many countries are “increasingly internally focused,” O’Sullivan said.
“What’s happening in our own societies is really impeding our ability to collectively cooperate — the rise of populism and nationalism, the challenges around immigration, a lot of these domestic issues are compromising our ability to be global leaders and to cooperate across national boundaries to solve the problems that demand transnational action,” O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan has also been investigating another significant global trend that she believes will have ramifications for geopolitics over the coming decades.
In her 2017 book “Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power,” O’Sullivan addresses how energy abundance is replacing energy scarcity and how the U.S. can take advantage of a changing geopolitical landscape shaped by new energy realities.
“Energy underpins international politics in a fundamental way,” O’Sullivan said, but this is still underappreciated in the foreign policy community because understanding energy markets requires specialized, technical knowledge that is less familiar to diplomats and policymakers.
O’Sullivan pinpoints “two huge revolutions” in energy that are reshaping global politics: first, the fracking boom that has allowed countries including the U.S. to tap into new reserves of oil and natural gas; and second, the slow-moving transition away from fossil fuels.
“America’s dependence on foreign oil has been a huge strategic vulnerability for decades, and now we’re in this very, very different order, both from an American perspective but also globally,” O’Sullivan said.
Decades ago, oil scarcity was the driving force behind Germany’s strategic planning, for example. In the 1970s, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) declared an oil embargo on the U.S. and other states that had supported Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the Iran-Iraq War similarly disrupted global oil supplies during the 1980s.
“Oil has been the basis of international power in many respects for 100 years. Think about what the world’s going to look like when that’s no longer the case and, say, clean energy technology carries with it a similar geopolitical heft,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s going to be a really different world. And it’s going to be one where investments we make today and research and development we do today is going to influence our geopolitical standing tomorrow.”
But O’Sullivan cautions against America pursuing energy independence to the point where it isolates itself internationally because the country still needs to be connected to global markets to be successful. To the contrary, America should capitalize on its energy boom to increase its global influence.
“I’m one of those people — I think there are many of us in Washington — who really believe that America’s role in creating, advancing, perpetuating a global economic and political system of the last 70 years has been absolutely critical. And that system has not only advanced American interests. I would say it has been the key to Chinese prosperity in a lot of ways. It has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It has helped the world address a lot of conflicts that might have spun out of control. It’s been responsible for a period of relative peace and prosperity,” O’Sullivan said.
“There are more doubts now than ever about America’s interest and commitment in continuing to play that role,” she lamented. “As America seems more ambivalent about this role and less committed to it, other countries are trying to step into the void — China being the most obvious one.
“That is really the critical question for our time: What is the fate of this rules-based order? Are we able to modify it in such a way that reflects some of the new realities that include the rise of Chinese power, that include the differing roles of emerging economies … but still preserve many of the elements which have underpinned the prosperity and the peace — or are we going to let it fray and deteriorate and not actually be active in what replaces it?”
The ones who will be answering this question will be members of the most diverse generation in American history, although the U.S. foreign policy establishment remains disproportionately male and white.
Yet O’Sullivan, who often found herself as the lone woman in a room full of older military commanders, struck an optimistic tone.
“I think it’s a great time to be a woman going into national security,” she said. “There are so many people who are role models at this time. I think there is also a real appreciation for mentorship and networks and vehicles devoted to promoting women and cultivating the pipeline.”
As an example, O’Sullivan pointed to the new Women and Power initiative at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where she teaches.
Looking at her own career, O’Sullivan said the most critical element of her success was mentors, “and those mentors don’t have to be women,” she said.
“There is what I think is a critical appreciation for diversity in any decision-making setting. So it’s no longer that women should be in positions of power because it’s the right thing to do. It’s that women need to be in positions of power, along with other groups representing greater diversity, because diversity enhances effectiveness of institutions and increases the quality of decision-making,” O’Sullivan said.
“I think people realize it’s not just optics, it’s actually about performance, and I think that is a really important realization.”
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.