WASHINGTON -- While the United States waited out the countdown to war, Richard N. Haass was among a handful of citizens who was breathing a little harder, sweating a bit more and suffering from greater gnawing anxiety than the rest of the country.
As President Bush's top national security analyst for the Middle East, Mr. Haass has been part of a tight circle of administration officials who, since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2, have devised, recommended and implemented the policy that put the nation at war.
If there has been any miscalculation, any missed trick, the responsibility will fall heavily on them.
"I think everybody involved in this feels that," Mr. Haass said during a recent interview. "For a lot of us, this could well be the most important issue we'll ever tackle in our lives. You don't have the luxury of losing sight of that. A lot hangs in the balance."
A 39-year-old specialist in regional conflicts, he described the past 5 1/2 months as an emotional roller coaster that has been professionally exhilarating and personally terrifying.
"There are times during the crisis that I was very anxious, and will be again I'm sure," recalled Mr. Haass, who has a reputation for self-confidence, if not immodesty, "whether it was over something I've said or written -- whether it was the right thing -- or just over events that were way beyond my control."
He noted that events beyond his control, such as whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would attack the first arriving units of U.S. forces sent to the Saudi Arabian desert last summer, "are usually much harder to watch."
"We were clearly very vulnerable," he recalled. "It's hard to exaggerate how anxious those moments were."
As executive director of the National Security Council's Near East bureau, Mr. Haass is one of a half-dozen members of a steering committee that has met almost daily since the crisis began. It makes policy recommendations to the president and his Cabinet as well as day-to-day decisions about how the approved policies should be implemented.
An innovation of the Bush presidency known as the deputy's committee, the panel is chaired by Deputy National Security Adviser Robert M. Gates and includes representatives from the State Department, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Thus, Mr. Haass has taken part in framing the initial U.S. reaction to the invasion, in the decision to send U.S. troops to defend Saudi Arabia and in the revised strategy that built up U.S. forces.
As part of the implementation of those decisions, Mr. Haass' group also has overseen the planning for diplomatic campaigns -- such as the global lobbying blitz that led to adoption of the United Nations' resolution authorizing the use of military force to evict Iraq.
On a more immediate level, the committee considers a dozen or so less-sweeping decisions each day: whether travel advisories need to be issued, whether a certain ambassador should be instructed to deliver some message or how to rule on an apparent breach of the U.N. economic embargo against Iraq.
Mr. Haass also serves in a second capacity as direct staff adviser on the gulf crisis to President Bush, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Mr. Gates.
Mr. Haass got a weekend off in November to get married, to a television producer he met on a blind date a year earlier, but left his bride the following Monday to join the president on his Thanksgiving visit to U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia.
"What's distinctive about this is simply the pace and intensity," Mr. Haass said. "Apart from the fact that you're physically here 15 hours a day, which is a lot, it is the speed at which the issues come at you, the amount of stuff you've got to read, the amount of stuff you've got to hear, the amount of meetings you've got to do, the amount of work you have to produce, decisions you have to make, papers you have to write. And all the while you've got to keep in mind the stakes. . . .
"You're physically tired a lot of the time, so there's a kind of cumulative tiredness. It's not good. One of the ironies of crises is that you are called upon to make some of your more important judgments when you're tired."
As the Persian Gulf crisis grew more grave, some of the Bush administration's judgments were second-guessed. Mr. Haass, who is neither a longtime specialist in Middle East affairs nor a career foreign service officer, has been the target of some of the criticism.
A major gaffe, Mr. Haass acknowledges, was the failure of his working group to take seriously Mr. Hussein's threats against Kuwait before Aug. 2 and the administration's apparent willingness to look the other way as it was trying to build stronger relations with Iraq.
"Clearly, we didn't . . . predict, until it was too late, the invasion," he said. "And none of us predicted the scale of the brutality."