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Sidewalks with Tom Deignan
The Battle for the 21st Century
September 25, 2008
Sidewalks by Tom Deignan
WHEN she was growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, Meghan O’Sullivan did not do her homework quite like all of the other kids. In second grade, when other kids might have been writing about their favorite color, O’Sullivan did a report about the Palestinians in the Middle East.
Not surprisingly, the Irish American went onto become a major player in international politics, with close ties to other Irish American figures such as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Richard Haass.
A second grader writing about international affairs may seem unusual, but O’Sullivan has always been out of the ordinary. Whereas most policy wonks make a living with their brains, O’Sullivan proved she could do that -– but could also make extra money in college working as a model.
Now, O’Sullivan is entering the spotlight. Earlier this month, she was featured as one of the “75 Most Influential People” of the 21st century. She has a central role in one of the most talked-about new books of the election season, Bob Woodward’s The War Within: A Secret White House History.
All of this makes O’Sullivan one of the most important -– yet least well-known -– Irish Americans on the political scene today.
Esquire magazine made this clear when she was chosen as one of their most influential Americans for the coming century. There were, of course, other Irish Americans on the list.
There was Samantha Power, a native of Ireland who won a Pulitzer Prize for her history book on genocide A Problem from Hell. Power, a former top foreign policy advisor to Senator Barack Obama, was thrust into prominence when she made some nasty comments about Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and was forced to leave the Obama campaign as a result.
The Esquire list also featured Senator Jim Webb, who was a leading candidate for the Democratic vice presidential nod, as well as the author of a best-selling history of the Scotch Irish in the U.S.
But O’Sullivan is the most intriguing Irish American on the list, especially as she her self is now being thrust into prominence. She is, for better or worse, considered an architect of the “surge” idea in Iraq.
At “the ripe old age of 39,” Esquire notes, O’Sullivan “racked up more history-making national-security policy stints than anyone under 40 you can name. Now safely ensconced at Harvard after surviving genuine dangers early on in Baghdad (the “mistakes were made,” tragically incompetent first year) and then braving Washington’s hostile political climate during George Bush’s worst years in this long war (she co-led the White House review that birthed the surge strategy), she is both celebrated and vilified, but clearly credentialed.”
O’Sullivan’s path to Harvard and the White House was paved, in part, by another Irish American familiar with Harvard and the White House — Moynihan.
After graduating from Georgetown University, she worked as a foreign policy researcher for Moynihan before moving on to Oxford. She then edited a book about economic sanctions entitled Honey and Vinegar. The book’s co-editor was Richard N. Haass, the former special envoy to Northern Ireland.
O’Sullivan later worked for Haass when he became director of policy planning at the State Department in Bush’s first term.
It is the Woodward book that may finally give O’Sullivan her moment under the political spotlight, whether she likes it or not.
Woodward –- whose books are always best sellers and the topic of intense debate in Washington -– depicts O’Sullivan as an adviser willing to tell the truth about the deteriorating situation in Iraq.
“During the summer of 2006, from her office adjacent to the White House, deputy national security adviser Meghan O’Sullivan sent President Bush a daily top secret report cataloging the escalating bloodshed and chaos in Iraq,” Woodward writes in a recent Washington Post excerpt.
Though Bush publicly expressed confidence that the situation would improve, O’Sullivan described Iraq this way.
“It’s hell, Mr. President.”
She advocated a new approach which has now become known as “the surge” -– flooding the Iraq with more soldiers to stabilize the area.
To critics, however, she is a “Bush-bot” loyalist. What is clear is that she is an Irish American to watch in the coming years.
(Contact Tom at
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