Saturday, November 13, 2004

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The NSC SOB leaves town

I missed this last week, but apparently Bob Blackwill has resigned from the National Security Council. Glenn Kessler and Al Kamen proffer one explanation for his departure in the Washington Post (link via Greg Djerejian):

Robert D. Blackwill, who resigned last week as the White House's top official on Iraq policy, was recently scolded by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told her that Blackwill appeared to have verbally abused and physically hurt a female embassy staffer during a visit to Kuwait in September, administration officials said.

The incident took place as Blackwill was rushing to return home after a visit to Baghdad to join a campaign swing planned by President Bush. As six officials describe the incident, he arrived at the Air France counter at the Kuwait airport and learned he was not on the flight manifest. Blackwill then turned in fury to an embassy secretary who had accompanied him to the airport and demanded that he be given a seat on the flight, grabbing her arm at one point, the officials said....

A National Security Council spokesman confirmed that Blackwill's actions in Kuwait raised questions but said he could not comment on the details. He said the incident was not the reason Blackwill quit his job three months before Iraq is to hold its first elections. An official at the lobbying firm Blackwill just joined -- Barbour, Griffith and Rogers -- said yesterday that Blackwill was traveling to Europe....

Another official, who is familiar with Blackwill's version of events, said that Blackwill believes the woman's description of the airport incident is not accurate and that another NSC staff member present during the incident supported Blackwill's version of it. The official did not elaborate.

Several officials noted that after the incident was reported, Blackwill traveled repeatedly with Bush on his campaign plane in the final weeks before the election. Blackwill, a deputy to Rice, was widely considered one of the top prospects to replace her as national security adviser if she took another job in the administration.

Instead, he abruptly left the administration and announced this week that he had joined Barbour, Griffith and Rogers....

Blackwill, who spent 22 years in the State Department's foreign service, is widely regarded as a brilliant and prickly boss with a management style that has struck some subordinates as abrasive. When he was ambassador to India early in the administration, he was the subject of two critical reports by the State Department inspector general on his management skills and plunging morale among the embassy staff.

Blackwill was Rice's mentor and boss when they served on the national security staff of President George H.W. Bush, handling European and Soviet affairs.

I've seen Blackwill in action and heard enough backchatter from people who have worked for him to be utterly unsurprised by anything in this report. His tenure as the U.S. ambassador to India was marked by similar problems.

Still, Blackwill's departure is a shame. He may have been an imperious SOB, but he was also a policymaker and manager of rare gifts -- and the country could use a few of those people. [You're just saying this because he's a Republican--ed. No, the Democrats have senior policymakers on their side with a similar set of positive and negative traits -- see Richard Holbrooke, Gene Sperling, or Ed Rendell. So Holbrooke and Sperling were physically abusive bosses?--ed. No, absolutely not -- but the verbal abuse, well, that's a different kettle of fish.]

UPDATE: John Burgess provides an illuminating comment about his experiences working under Blackwill in India.

posted by Dan on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM


"I've seen Blackwill in action"

Oh, really? Cuz you're only telling half the story here, you know ... apparently he likes to parade around naked in his house where Francis Brooke can see him. Or so says Richard Leiby.

posted by: praktike on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

Is this Wonkette, or Who cares if Blackwill parades around his house naked (besides his neighbors, I mean)?

posted by: foo on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

"Imperious SOB" and "manager of rare gifts" do not *usually* go together...

posted by: David Foster on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

Also "manager of rare gifts" and "plunging morale among staff."

posted by: sm on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

I also don't understand the claim that Blackwill's departure is a shame. Surely we can find good managers and policy-makers who are also good people.

Also, I understand Professor Drezner's desire to keep things bipartisan, but I'd be interested to know the occasions that Holbrooke and Sperling assaulted low-level civil servants.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

I'd also like to know if Holbrooke joined a lobbying firm that had offshoots that were highly involved in gaining contracts for work in Bosnia. Mr. Blackwill is now employed with a lobbying firm that has benefitted tremendously from Iraq related contracts.

posted by: ned on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

It is really really nice that he can fall in to a nice think tank job. If you or I hurt a female staffer we would be out, probably sued and on unemployment.

Oh yes, different rules for Novaks and Blackwells.

posted by: Veloer on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

C'mon. Let's all stop pretending that any person, any policy is going to make a difference in Iraq.

It was a Bad Idea, and now we are paying the price. Actually, not we, but working class Americans. This story and this post is just one more example of the noise being put out about Iraq.

posted by: stari_momak on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

Put me down as being confused as to how he's an SBO and a manager of rare gifts.

posted by: austin mls on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

I worked with Blackwill at the US Embassy in India.

Blackwill is an incredibly brilliant thinker with absolutely no interpersonal skills. As such, he is not even a half-way decent "manager", when the management concerns people. He manages concepts, however, extraordinarily well.

I never saw Blackwill touch an employee other than to shake hands. His manner is such that embassy staff wondered that he could have fathered three children. Or have married twice. "What the hell did a spouse get out of the relationship?" was the question.

Blackwill is the textbook definition of "workaholic." He sleeps four hours a night. He informed staff that he wanted only one day off of work, every two weeks. He expected his supporting officers and staff to share that same work ethic. Staff and officers liked to pretend, at least to themselves, that they had lives and families outside of the office. The officers who did best with him were the ones who were forthright with him.

One junior officer, my Deputy Information Officer who was responsible for many of his speeches and statements, bluntly told him that he would do whatever the Ambassador wanted, but... Thursdays nights were out, due to one child's soccer practice; Tuesdays were out due to another child's theater group; Sundays were out because his family went to church. (It was understood, of course, that a crisis would alter the limits.) When I suggested to him that his staff really did need two-day weekends, Blackwill not only accepted the suggestions, but abided by them. Most State officers, though, were far too concerned about their careers to dare challenge an ambassador. Had they done so, they would have been surprised.

By the time I'd arrive in my office at 0730 (early, because I knew there'd be a lot of work waiting), I would find between 20 and 30 e-mails from Blackwill, time-stamped from 0330 onward, most dealing with materials he'd gleaned from the Internet. He was exceptionally demanding of his staff, to the point where they were breaking down with overload.

While Blackwill made my life difficult, he was always a decent human being. I think his major fault was that he simply lacked empathy toward other human beings, whether they were staff or foreign counterparts. It seemed, at times, that what he knew about managing personnel he'd read in a book. He could and would argue his side exceptionally well; he was not quick to realize that other sides might have some merit on occasion.

That being said, I'd go back to work with Blackwill in a flash, particularly if the choice were to work with Holbrooke instead. Blackwill was not mean-spirited, just clueless sometimes. Holbrooke, in my estimation, is out outright bastard.

posted by: John Burgess on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

A friend of mine had similar experiences with Blackwill as John Burgess and has similarly high regard for Blackwill's intelligence and dedication. The demands Blackwill is said to have placed on his staff are unusual in government and academia, but not at all unusual in the private sector. High-performing organizations just don't prioritize making their employees' lives all that comfortable. There are any number of young professionals at top-level consulting firms, investment banks and law firms that could tell similar stories about the partner/MD/etc. that they worked for. I don't think this or any administration would work well with 100 Blackwills, but zero is way too few. It is a real shame that he left, and I say that as a Democrat.

posted by: anon on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

Reminds me of Patton being sacked for slapping a shell shocked soldier. I think it says alot about our country that we are willing to sacrifice an SOB even if it's a very VERY inconvienent time to do so.

posted by: wayne on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

Don't forget shakeups at the CIA. Four more years of fun ahead.

posted by: Jor on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

What makes you so sure that Blackwill was forced out? I think he may have just called it quits when his pride was affronted. He doesn't seem to me to be the kind of man that would take a dressing down from Condi, a former protege of his. Given how hard he worked, the Bush Administration needed him more than he need them. They should have remembered that.

posted by: oldman on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

I could certainly accept the idea of his leaving after his pride was unredeemably bruised. "Humble" is not an attribute I'd pin on him.

I certainly take anon's point, but would also point out that you cannot keep any machine running full-out indefinitely. And those young lawyers who work 90-hour weeks do so for a limited period of time before they either get promoted or move into other lines of work.

There's a bit of a difference, too, when the people involved are already near the top of the tree and are being told to go back down and count the acorns.

posted by: John Burgess on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

A couple of comments here:

Strong personalities often require strong supervision. The more important their job the greater is the imperative to keep whatever personal weaknesses they may have from interfering with their ability to do it. Evidently "strong supervision" and "Condoleeza Rice" are two concepts that do not go together.

The other thing is, what exactly is the requirement that an NSC official join a campaign trip by the President? Bush had use of the White House throughout the campaign as far as I know, in fact he returned there most every night. Secure, modern communications between the United States and Kuwait are available as well. Unless the idea was to have Blackwill assist the campaign by delivering spin on how well preparations for the Iraqi elections were going -- which idea would have been wholly inappropriate -- I'm not clear on why this flight Blackwill was so distraught over missing was even necessary.

posted by: Zathras on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

I'm not sure, but I think I agree with that Bodazhang guy.

posted by: norbizness on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

wayne writes: "eminds me of Patton being sacked for slapping a shell shocked soldier. I think it says alot about our country that we are willing to sacrifice an SOB even if it's a very VERY inconvienent time to do so."

But only certain kinds of SOB-ness.

The SOB who tries to legally justify torture, and says the President can do anything he wants during wartime - he gets nominated for Attorney General.

posted by: Jon H on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

I'd prefer to stay anonymous, but my wife worked for Blackwill, and describes him as an incredibly abusive, mean-spirited, nasty person. She's not at all surprised by this latest episode, and said that she had seen similar experiences during her own tenure (grabbing female staffers when furious and squeezing their arms until they were bruised), although she was personally assaulted by him only verbally, and never physically. Might it be a matter of how he treats his *female* staffers? In any event, brilliant or not (and she agrees that he has a brilliant policy mind), there is some minimum level of human decorum that should be demanded, even at the highest governmental levels.

posted by: anonymous on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

I've also seen Bob Blackwill in action --at the K School, where despite his horrid interpersonal skills, he is actually revered for his astute thinking and general brilliance. I don't know him personally but I too have heard enough stories from people in the Foreign Service (in India) and friends in the NSC --first Bush WH where he worked above Condi, and more recently now, where he was her deputy.
I really want to know more about the "scolding" (acc to the Post) Rice gave to him. State Department had it out for him too, which is why Powell went to her with the info and both went after him.

People don't have the popular impression that Condi is, well, a hard ass. Instead, she radiates sparkle and affability --or isn't that her main charm?

The only rare time I saw her lose it was a dandy: a virtual Krakatoa with lava spewing over, when a wise guy student handed out a fake final exam to her "Military in Politics" undergrad course at Stanford and students were beginning to take it! She actually hurled the student --with the student inside his desk/chair--out of the room with superhuman strength, seething as she was doing. You do NOT see this side to her but I wonder if she went ballistic with this boor.

Finally, happy 50th B-Day, Condi..hope that lavish gala at the British Embassy (with your admirers, Tony and Cherie Blair) was fun!

posted by: Diego on 11.13.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

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