Robert Blackwill seems like the last man you would want for a sensitive diplomatic mission. He shouts. He interrupts. He grandstands and pontificates. "He's a vain son of a bitch," says a former colleague. "Human relations are not his strong suit," says another. With his high-pitched giggle and awkward bearing, the fleshy former Harvard professor comes across in unguarded moments as eccentric and condescending. His jokes fall flat; his attempts to ingratiate just grate.
For salvaging a diplomatic train wreck, however, Blackwill, 64, may be the best there is. So a year ago, when the Bush Administration realized how much trouble it faced in postwar Iraq, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice reached out to Blackwill. Administration officials say his mission was to clean up Iraq, preferably before U.S. elections this November. Largely hidden from view, Blackwill has been the White House's eyes and ears in Iraq ever since, taking a backseat in public to proconsul Paul Bremer while wielding influence behind the scenes.
Administration officials credit Blackwill with masterminding the U.N.'s return to the country, steering the occupation toward June 30 and brokering the formation of the interim Iraqi government with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. "He's not known for his people skills," says his former boss Brent Scowcroft. "But if you want talent, raw talent to get the job done, he is terrific."
With a new Iraqi government about to take office and Bremer set to exit the scene, Blackwill has emerged as the U.S.'s most powerful--and elusive--official in Iraq. Shuttling between Baghdad and Washington, he will play a key role in the coming months in such efforts as mollifying Kurdish aspirations for autonomy, returning Sunnis to the political process and overseeing the work of John Negroponte, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
Yet even to the Iraqi politicians who worked with Blackwill in choosing members of the new government, he remains an unknown commodity. "He played a major role in the process," says a senior aide on the disbanded Iraqi Governing Council. "But he did it quietly, subtly. You won't find any fingerprints."
Though he shuns the spotlight, Blackwill makes his presence felt. He was Rice's boss in the first Bush Administration, working on Russia policy under then National Security Adviser Scowcroft. "We used to argue frequently," says Scowcroft, "and he'd leave the office saying 'Remember, you don't pay me to agree with you. You pay me for my opinions.'" In 2000 Rice brought Blackwill into the team of "Vulcans," who tutored President George W. Bush on foreign and national-security policy during the campaign. But though the rest of that team ended up with coveted jobs, Blackwill was cut out of the high command once Bush took office and was instead appointed ambassador to India.