Titles can be deceiving. Robert D. Blackwill, deputy national security adviser for strategic planning, is a case in point.
As President Bush’s personal envoy to Iraq, Blackwill is one of the White House’s most trusted architects of the Iraq reconstruction policy. If rebuilding Iraq is the Bush administration’s chief foreign policy initiative, and the National Security Council’s primary job is to coordinate that effort, then Blackwill is the surrogate national security advisor. Known as “The Shadow” among CPA (or “Children Playing as Adults”) bureaucrats in Iraq for his not-so-behind-the-scenes influence over reconstruction, Blackwill is rumored to have bumped heads with Bremer—and won.
Tasked with creating the National Security Council’s Iraq Stabilization Group (ISG) last October by President Bush, Condoleezza Rice tapped Blackwill—her former boss from Bush I—to lead the ISG team working on Iraq’s political transition. The other three teams are working on counterterrorism, economic development, and public relations.
The decision to create the ISG is bizarre in and of itself. The National Security Council is already supposed to coordinate foreign policy. Why create the ISG, then?
One explanation is that Condi Rice and her National Security Council hadn’t been doing their job. Another is that the administration invented the ISG as a way to dupe the public into thinking that they were making headway into rebuilding Iraq. Neither is very flattering.
Nevertheless, the administration has hailed the ISG as a major initiative to streamline its Iraq reconstruction work. But within seven months of its creation, the other three team leaders—Gary R. Edson, Anna M. Perez, and Frances F. Townsend—had either already left their posts or become preoccupied with non-Iraq issues.
In essence, Blackwill is the ISG. Widely regarded as a crack policy analyst, Blackwill is the kind of guy who gets things done, and done right. But Blackwill is also infamous for being awkwardly eccentric, condescending, and something of a bully. He is certainly no push-over—an important skill when your bureaucratic nemesis is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Blackwill arrived at the ISG from India, where he had spent the previous two years as ambassador. The unique legacy he left behind in India captures the tensions in his character and reputation. On the one hand, Blackwill is credited for making the United States’ relationship with India the best it has ever been, and his skillful diplomacy has been credited with helping India and Pakistan avert war in the summer of 2002.
On the other hand, Blackwill was the subject of a biting report on his people and management skills by the State Department’s inspector general. Morale at the embassy bottomed-out under Blackwill’s tenure, and he became something of a spectacle in India’s media. Apparently, he had a penchant for treating embassy staff “like furniture” and loudly ridiculing guests who attended his dinner parties and receptions.
Blackwill, 64, began his career in the Foreign Service, where he served for 22 years. At the State Department, he worked for Secretaries Kissinger, Haig, and Schultz, and was U.S. ambassador and chief negotiator at the Warsaw Pact talks on conventional forces in Europe from 1985-1987. From 1989-1990, he served as special assistant to President George H.W. Bush, where he advised on European and Soviet affairs, and where Condi Rice was one of his subordinates. He then began an academic career at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he taught international security policy and wrote on Russia, arms control, transatlantic relations, and U.S.-South Asian relations.
Blackwill is brainy and brawny—a formidable combination of traits in a political environment rife with 800-pound gorillas.
One of these gorillas is Rumsfeld. Most have interpreted the creation of the ISG as a rebuff of Rumsfeld’s and other top Pentagon brass’s leadership of the reconstruction process. The announcement certainly caught Rumsfeld by surprise; apparently, he hadn’t been informed of the ISG’s creation—let alone consulted on it—in advance.
Battling Rumsfeld and his former Baghdad stand-in, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer, for control and influence over what is undoubtedly the Pentagon’s flagship undertaking is no light task. Rumsfeld is about as experienced a Washington-insider as they come; few know the intricacies of Washington power and influence brokerage as well as he does.
So far, however, Blackwill’s considerable intellect and domineering personality have enabled him to hold his own against Rumsfeld and his Pentagon hawks.
Blackwill was instrumental in getting the United Nations to return to Iraq this spring, worked closely with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on forming the interim Iraqi government, and played a central role in orchestrating and managing the June 30/28 hand-over. On one occasion, he cornered Ahmad Chalabi on Chalabi’s home turf—the Pentagon—and apparently bombasted him for attempting to block Brahimi’s return to Iraq.
Blackwill has already succeeded in asserting greater White House control over Iraq reconstruction. But bureaucratic victories will not build a country. With the first phase of Iraq’s political transition now complete, Blackwill must turn his sights on securing legitimacy for the new Iraqi government.
This remains a daunting task, and Blackwill’s abilities may not be enough to rescue the reconstruction effort from the litany of mistakes, miscalculations and downright delusions of Pentagon and White House hawks. The Iraqi economy is stagnant, basic infrastructure and services remain in short supply, and the insurgency shows few signs of abating. But if there is someone in the Bush administration who can do this, Blackwill is probably the guy.
Andrew J. Grotto is an associate scholar in national security at the Center for American Progress.