Robert D. Blackwill, the tough-minded diplomat brought to the White House last year to take charge of the administration's troubled Iraq policy, unexpectedly announced his resignation yesterday. His departure deprives the administration of a key figure involved in the effort to ensure that Iraq holds elections by the end of January.
Blackwill had been mentioned prominently in speculation about President Bush's second-term foreign policy team, with some observers pegging him as a possible successor to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. But in an e-mail yesterday afternoon to colleagues on the National Security Council staff, Blackwill said he had told Rice several weeks ago he would continue working through the U.S. presidential election but leave soon afterward, thus taking himself out of the post-election jockeying for power.
Blackwill arrived at the White House in the summer of 2003, when the administration was riven by disputes between the Pentagon and State Department and it was becoming clear that the effort in Iraq was going off-track. He has been widely credited with bringing order to a dysfunctional process, and with helping to reshape administration policy by focusing on ending the U.S.-led occupation and establishing an interim Iraqi government.
He has shuttled between Washington and Baghdad, spending a total of three months in Iraq this year. Because he was the White House point person on Iraq, other administration officials said, they had expected he would have been heavily involved in the preparations for the Iraqi elections.
Blackwill wrote his colleagues yesterday that next week he would go on vacation for several weeks and then return to Washington to pursue opportunities outside government. He had been a Harvard University professor before joining the Bush administration, and he delayed his return to Harvard to take the White House post.
White House officials said Blackwill's departure less than three months before the crucial elections should not be interpreted as a sign of disarray or disagreement in its Iraq policy. Blackwill has told associates that he spent six years working for Bush -- two years as a foreign policy adviser to his first presidential campaign, two years as ambassador to India and two years at the White House -- and that the presidential election seemed like a natural end to this cycle in his life.
In another high-profile departure, J. Cofer Black, a 28-year CIA veteran who headed the agency's hunt for Osama bin Laden after Sept. 11, 2001, and moved over in 2002 to run the State Department's counterterrorism effort, announced he is retiring next week.
Black's claims to fame were in his role in capturing the infamous assassin known as Carlos the Jackal and, more recently, in presenting dramatic testimony before Congress shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, where he announced that "the gloves are off."
As the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, however, Black oversaw the release of a faulty report that underestimated the number of people who died or were injured from international terrorism last year. In a major embarrassment for the administration, the report had to be withdrawn, and the rewritten version more than doubled the count of those killed or injured by international terrorism.
Blackwill, whose official title was coordinator for strategic planning, was a mentor to Rice during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, when they worked together during the Soviet Union's tumultuous unraveling.
During his two-year stint as ambassador to India, Blackwill oversaw one of the fastest transformations in relations between the United States and any country by peaceful means, he noted in a farewell address to the Conference of Indian Industry in New Delhi. When he arrived in 2001, India was under U.S. economic sanctions because of its 1998 nuclear tests and was considered "a nuclear renegade whose policies threatened the entire nonproliferation regime," he said.
But Blackwill's demanding, sometimes prickly personality rubbed colleagues at the State Department the wrong way. The department's inspector general charged that Blackwill was not civil to his subordinates and caused morale to plummet at the embassy.
During his stint at the White House, Blackwill worked closely with L. Paul Bremer, the chief administrator of the occupation authority in Iraq. The two men had forged a close relationship 30 years ago, when Bremer was chief aide to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Blackwill was chief aide to State Department counselor Helmut Sonnenfeldt -- and the two mediated policy differences between their bosses, both strong-willed Central European intellectuals.