WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- When he was U.S. Ambassador to Islamabad, Robert B. Oakley earned the nickname "viceroy" from a Pakistani newspaper for his determined -- some say abrasive -- style and strong influence on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Viceroy was the title once given to the men sent from England to rule India when it was part of the British Empire.
As the U.S. special envoy in Somalia, Mr. Oakley has wasted no time exerting the aggressive personality that earned him that nickname. He is moving into an extraordinary leadership vacuum in a way that seems destined to make him a pre-eminent political figure in that desperate, fractured nation while U.S. troops are there.
On arrival in Mogadishu Monday, Mr. Oakley, 61, warned Somalian warlords not to interfere with the arrival of U.S. forces. Yesterday, Somalia's leading rival warlords, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed, complied, ordering their teen-aged gunmen to steer clear of the U.S. landing force.
His threshold for foolishness is very low, says Noel Koch, a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who has worked with and admires Mr. Oakley.
In the coming days of the U.S.-led military operation to secure the delivery of food and other relief, Mr. Oakley will be the key U.S. liaison among the U.S. military commanders, warlords, clan elders, the United Nations and representatives of relief agencies from around the world.
Working with the lead U.S. military commander, Lieut. Gen. Bob Johnston, Mr. Oakley also will like ly play an influential role in defining the still-vague limits of the United State's pacification effort and in determining when the mission can be handed off to U.N. peacekeepers.
As a former U.S. ambassador to Somalia, Mr. Oakley was a natural for the job of special envoy when he was tapped by Frank G. Wisner, undersecretary of state for international affairs. He was first sounded out on the day before Thanksgiving, when President Bush decided to offer a U.S.-led military coalition to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. The post was confirmed the following Friday.
But Mr. Oakley brought more than a knowledge of the players in and around Mogadishu.
In a 34-year foreign service career, the tall, gaunt-looking diplomat has bridged the African and Islamic worlds, helped craft Middle East policy, worked the darker recesses of counterterrorism and the drug war, and backed the Afghan resistance.
His Somalia post is just the latest in a series of sensitive assignments.
In the fall of 1985, while chief of counterterrorism at the State Department, he got a call from Oliver L. North asking him to help secure overflight clearance from Portugal for a plane that later turned out to be shipping Hawk missiles from Israel to Iran.
Although he "had reason to believe there were some arms involved," Mr. Oakley later testified that he approved a telegram to the U.S. embassy in Lisbon requesting overflight clearance.
Under questioning by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., at a congressional hearing, Mr. Oakley explained: "It was not as clear to me then as it was later the precise nature of what was going on, that we were, in effect, involved in a very clear arms-for-hostages situation. . . . No. 2, I did not do anything that was not known to and authorized by higher authority."
Mr. Oakley later put his opposition to the whole arms-for-hostages scheme in writing to then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who argued in vain against the policy.
As the fallout from the Iran-contra affair rocked the White House in 1986, Mr. Oakley was part of a team put together by then-National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci, his Princeton classmate, aimed at restoring the credibility of the National Security Council staff and U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Arab world.
A year and a half later, he was dispatched as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan immediately following the plane crash that killed both President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq and the U.S. envoy to Islamabad, Arnold Raphel.
To his supporters in and out of the foreign service, he is both "policy brilliant" and "operational," in the words of one of them.
"He's an able and honest man," says Mr. Koch, who worked on Africa policy and counterterrorism with Mr. Oakley. "He was thrown out of Kinshasha [Zaire] for telling [President Sese Seko] Mobutu the truth. He was thrown out of Mogadishu for telling Siad Barre the truth. And he was thrown out of the State Department for telling George Shultz you couldn't drop bombs on terrorists."
This is a technical exaggeration. Mr. Oakley wasn't declared persona non grata at his diplomatic posts, nor was he fired by Mr. Shultz.
But he and his superior did disagree over Mr. Shultz's idea of impressive displays of force against terrorists.
Mr. Oakley worked to develop instead a system of cooperation against terrorists -- both within government and among nations -- that is credited with helping prevent an outbreak of terrorism before and during the war with Iraq.
Mr. Oakley is also said to have had a role in improved intelligence collection on terrorist groups.
As a foreign service officer, he worked under George Bush at the U.S. mission to the United Nations, and served in the Ivory Coast, Vietnam, France and Lebanon. He was ambassador to Zaire, Somalia and Pakistan.
His wife, Phyllis, also a foreign service officer, was a department spokesman during the Reagan administration and is now a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's intelligence and research bureau.
Mr. Oakley's tenure in Pakistan was perhaps his most controversial. Besides exerting what some critics say was undue influence on the inexperienced Mrs. Bhutto, Mr. Oakley also pushed the concept of an Afghan Interim Government among resistance fighters based in Pakistan, a move that some analysts say gave too much power to fundamentalists.
And despite his almost legendary reputation for bluntness, Mr. Oakley left congressional investigators frustrated when they tried to probe the U.S. response to the Zia plane crash.
Mr. Oakley was among policy makers who decided to send a Pentagon team to investigate the crash, cutting the FBI out of the probe, a move that he later testified was an oversight on his part.
As to the congressional charges of stonewalling, his wife dismisses them as "groundless."