I was walking around feeling guilty the last several days for not making the time to say farewell to our Ms. Bumiller after her last White House Letter showed up on the last Monday in May. It was a sweet See You Later to the BushCo family as she speculated on a Jebbie run. Because that's valuable stuff that is interesting, that she works to get and not just her sort of yammering on about something. With that she was off to write the definitive biography of Condi, tenatively titled Yes, Mr. President: A Look Inside the Greatest Foreign Policy Mind of All Time (and she's a girl!)
But it turns out that rumors of Ms. Bumiller's hiatus were greatly exaggerated because what do I see this week but a Bumiller byline on a story that reads suspiciously like a White House Letter, which is to say that it's a People-esque profile of a White House staffer. But not just any staffer. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Ms. Bumiller gives you a Gertrude Bell for our time. Meet Meghan O'Sullivan, Queen of New Iraq.
At the end of each day, President Bush gets a three-to-four-page memo from the National Security Council staff about developments over the previous 24 hours in Iraq. The document, said to be written in the crisp, compelling style that the president prefers, can cover a range of issues — the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, new nominees for cabinet posts or the progress, or lack of it, in ending the three-year insurgency.
The person responsible for the memo is someone who is largely unknown outside the administration, but who colleagues say is instrumental in shaping Mr. Bush's views: Meghan L. O'Sullivan, the 36-year-old deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, and the most senior official working on those nations full time at the White House.
Gertrude Bell, a British traveler, writer and linguist, was one of the most powerful women of the 1920s, an adviser to empire builders and confidante to kings.
An "oriental secretary" to British governments, she is credited with drawing the boundaries of modern Iraq out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One.
I mean, break out the Ouija board, right?
With Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, Ms. O'Sullivan briefs the president in person on Iraq up to several times a week. Over the weekend she helped to prepare the agenda for Mr. Bush's war cabinet meetings on Monday and Tuesday at Camp David and will be on hand throughout the sessions.
Ms. O'Sullivan, who spent more than a year in Baghdad as an aide to L. Paul Bremer III, then the top American civilian administrator in Iraq, also helps to prepare the agenda for the president's weekly National Security Council meetings on Iraq.
She coordinates the political, security and reconstruction efforts for Iraq throughout the agencies of the government. Not least, she briefs the president before all of his phone calls and meetings with Iraqi leaders.
Although Ms. O'Sullivan does not make major decisions — the administration's policy is run by Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — she is important because of her closeness to the president and her role in helping to form his thinking.
Spooky. But what matters and what is very clear from this comparison is that our blood-thirsty neo-colonialists, seem to have learned nothing at all from the painful lessons of the very recent past.
Bell and her fellow colonialists settled Iraq's borders by merging the old Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, seeking to secure British interests and with scant regard for tribal and ethnic boundaries.
"I had a well spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the Iraq," Bell, who specialized in Arabic and Persian languages, wrote to her father in 1921.
What emerged was a centralized state with three peoples with differing aims, ideals and beliefs: non-Arab Kurds in the mountainous north, Shi'ite Muslims in the south and Sunni Arabs in Baghdad and in the rest of the heartland.
In 1958, a group of nationalist military officers ousted the puppet monarchy Bell had helped install in a bogus referendum in 1921 that passed with 96 percent of the vote.
She had also helped draw up many of the policies that were later taken up by Saddam's Baath Party and which exacerbated the centuries-old tensions between Shi'ites and Sunnis.
She ensured that a Sunni elite, previously favored by the Sunni Turks running the Ottoman territories, dominated the new Iraqi government and the army, and that the majority Shi'ites, whom she regarded as religious zealots, remained oppressed.
Kurds were denied self-rule so that London could control Kurdistan's oil fields and build a buffer against the Russians.
"I don't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority; otherwise you will have a ... theocratic state, which is the very devil," Bell wrote in another letter.
She ensured a Sunni elite. That's interesting because if you remember back a year ago, then you know that a Sunni-led government was part of the initial invasion planning. From a March 8, 2002 Operations Paper released as part of the Downing Street Memos: (emph mine)
In considering the options for regime change below, we need to first consider what sort of Iraq we want? There are two possibilities: *A Sunni military strongman. He would be likely to maintain Iraqi territorial integrity. Assistance with reconstruction and political rehabilitation could be traded for assurances on abandoning WMD programmes and respecting human rights, particularly of ethnic minorities. The US and other militaries could withdraw quickly. However, there would then be a strong risk of the Iraqi system reverting to type. Military coup could succeed coup until an autocratic, Sunni dictator emerged who protected Sunni interests. With time he coudl acquire WMD; or * a representative broadly democratic government. This would be Sunni-led [were these people ever right about anything leading up BushCo's War?] but, within a federal structure, the Kurds would be guaranteed autonomy and the Shia fair access to government. Such a regime would be less likely to develop WMD and threaten its neighbours. However, to survivie it would require the US and others to commit to nation building for many years. This would entail a substantial international security force and help with reconstruction.
In the end, Wolfowitz pushed the Saddam-lite option off the table in favor of "something like a functioning democracy," which isn't described in any real detail but we can assume is something like the second option outlined above. Now we've got a Shi'a strongman in place presiding over something like the very devil.
Back to the neo-Bell:
One of Ms. O'Sullivan's chief responsibilities in Baghdad was keeping abreast of developments within the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or Sciri, one of the main Shiite parties. She covered herself from head to toe for meetings with Abdul Aziz Hakim, the party leader, and earned his trust.
At least Bell was able to dress as she chose when she did her job:
Bell, who had an aristocratic upbringing, lived in a more genteel Baghdad than today's city of sandbags, armored vehicles and the bombed-out hulks of Saddam-era government buildings.
She wore long muslin dresses and feathered hats and rode side-saddle along the banks of the Tigris. In her letters, she describes a Baghdad of tea parties, regattas, swimming excursions and luncheons on the verandas of colonial buildings.
The Neo-Bell lives more dangerously:
Ms. O'Sullivan's point of view comes from her intense months in Baghdad, where she had one major harrowing moment. In October 2003, when she was immersed in the negotiations over Iraq's first post-invasion constitution, a rocket hit her hotel in Baghdad. The blast jammed Ms. O'Sullivan's door shut, and she escaped by inching along a narrow ledge outside her 10th-floor window.
She eventually made her way to the Baghdad streets and then her office at Saddam Hussein's former palace on the banks of the Tigris. The explosion killed an American colonel and wounded 16 others.
"It was a dangerous place to live, and I was constantly reminded of that because I had Iraqi friends who were killed," Ms. O'Sullivan said matter-of-factly. "But it's amazing how you can function, and also how much more there is going on in Iraq besides the violence."
Sure, it's dangerous. Lots of people are getting killed, absolutely. But there's other stuff to do too. There's waiting for the water and electricity to come back on, finding bodies in the street, hiding in your home, watching previously safe southern Iraq fall into chaos. If you're an Iraqi woman, there's all the time you now need to devote to avoiding the violent new oppression that's come your way. There's a lot going on!
The end of Ms. Bumiller's piece gets a little bit sad, but only if you know the story of Bell. If you don't, then it reads like the adventure story she seems to have wanted it to be:
She lives not far from the White House, is single and tries not to work seven days a week. Her future is tied to Iraq: her colleagues say she could be national security adviser someday — or something much less.
"The reality is that if Iraq implodes, she'll probably go nowhere," Mr. Diamond said. "Because she will have been associated in an integral way with one of the biggest failures in the history of American foreign policy."
But going nowhere professionally in the field of nation building would be a good outcome for Ms. O'Sulllivan if we're going to use Bell as a yardstick: (emph mine)
But as revolt spread and Britain used bombs and poison gas against those opposed to its presence, she faded from public life.
"We have underestimated the fact that this country is really an inchoate mass of tribes which can't as yet be reduced to any system," she once said.
Five years before her death from an overdose of sleeping pills aged 57 in 1926, she wrote: "You may rely upon one thing -- I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain."
King making, nation building. It's all the same in the fog of war:
Ms. O'Sullivan is undaunted. "I'm able to focus on the fact that we're building a relationship with Iraq," she said, "that will have benefits to Iraq and America over the long term."