It's Robert Blackwill's job to look at the crystal ball of US foreign policy and predict both war and peace. Mostly war, really. With Lord Ganesha presiding at his desk, he endeavours to grasp the big picture and recommend rescues and remedies. It's been six months since he left the expansive environs of Roosevelt House in New Delhi as the US ambassador and came to the small but infinitely more powerful room a few yards from the White House to a post created specially for him. As the 'coordinator for strategic planning', he has the latitude to think the unthinkable, track the intractable and the freedom to dabble globally even though his particular sphere of influence includes Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
Blackwill is effectively the No. 2 man in the National Security Council. But the buzz is he may become No. 1 if President Bush wins another term, with Condoleezza Rice taking over as secretary of state. He is seen as Rice's "alter ego" at the nsc, the ultimate policy well into which various departments pour their inputs. He has made a smooth transition from being a public figure in India to working behind the scenes, fitting in well in an administration known for valuing secrecy.
While sitting in the inner rings of the power circle that surrounds the White House, Blackwill still maintains his links with Mother India, something he had eloquently expanded on in his farewell speeches. His office has a large map of India and the only object of veneration on his clean table besides the 'in' and 'out' trays is a small Ganesha statue. Despite his preoccupation with the world's prime trouble spots, officials say he keeps in touch with Indian policy issues, meets Indian visitors and speaks to academic groups. No one's complaining: when the powerful show an interest, it can only augur well for the future. Last month he took time to meet foreign minister Yashwant Sinha to get an update on the prospects for peace in South Asia. He attended a vin d'honneur to celebrate India's Republic Day at Ambassador Lalit Mansigh's residence, adding to the already glittering power roster led by Senator Hillary Clinton and David Mulford, who has recently left as the new US ambassador to India.
Reports say Blackwill quietly met his counterpart Brajesh Mishra last September on the sidelines of a lunch hosted by Bush for Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, to sort out last-minute hiccups in the "strategic partnership" agreement. Blackwill's doggedness was crucial as he was constantly talking to everyone who counted in Washington, says an expert whom Blackwill occasionally consults. He has been a positive force in the past and some say he can still help remove "small hurdles" depending on the state-of-play in the White House. "He can be instrumental behind the scenes," adds the expert. But warns a senior Indian official, "To think of him as India's man in the White House is wrong. He's extremely busy working out the political transition in Iraq."
That, though, hasn't stopped Pakistani diplomats and their friends in the State Department from keeping a strict eye on Blackwill. He remains a continuing source of irritation to both given his powerful position in the advisory hierarchy. Even last month, it was how Pakistan would perceive the "Indo-US strategic partnership" and how Blackwill's "insults" hurt Islamabad that were uppermost in the minds of the State Department as the landmark agreement was announced. In the past, Pakistani spokesmen, ignoring all diplomatic norms, have accused him of everything, from "localitis" to being an "Indian agent", "Delhi's front man" and worse, specially after he spoke out strongly against cross-border terrorism. Last week, a senior Pakistani diplomat, unable to contain his curiosity, asked if Blackwill was still playing for India.
No one really knows. But if push came to shove, he is in the right place to throw a bit of that weight around.
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