Khalilzad Changes Approach From Hawk to Bridge-Builder

Zalmay Khalilzad has spent the past year as U.N. ambassador working to repair diplomatic damage.
Zalmay Khalilzad has spent the past year as U.N. ambassador working to repair diplomatic damage. (By David Karp -- Associated Press)
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By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

UNITED NATIONS -- At his residence at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York, Zalmay Khalilzad displays a banged-up AK-47 assault rifle from Saddam Hussein's arsenal: a souvenir from a war Khalilzad supported and a regime he helped topple.

But as President Bush's chief envoy to the United Nations, Khalilzad has spent the past year trying to repair some of the diplomatic wreckage that followed the U.S.-led invasion. He has won over colleagues with a willingness to compromise and listen -- in a half-dozen languages -- that was lacking from his pugnacious predecessor, John R. Bolton. "He doesn't have this attitude that we are the Americans . . . so take it or leave it," said South Africa's U.N. ambassador, Dumisani Shadrack Kumalo, reflecting a view held widely at U.N. headquarters.

Khalilzad's supporters say his stints as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations have taught him that the go-it-alone strategy of his neoconservative allies had run its course. "He's a neocon who got mugged by reality," said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat who advised Iraqi Kurds after the fall of Hussein.

Yet others have derided Khalilzad's transition from war hawk to bridge-builder as an act of political opportunism. "This is one of the great PR snow jobs of the Bush administration's second term," said Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council Middle East specialist during President Bush's first term. "It's hard to say in the end what he really believes in terms of political convictions, beyond ingratiating himself with the powers that be in any given situation."

Khalilzad's professional journey over the past decade tracks the Bush administration's after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: a bold quest to reshape the Middle East through U.S. military power that mellowed into a diplomatic effort to reconnect with Washington's estranged allies. "He is not what he was," said William Leurs, president of the United Nations Association, crediting Khalilzad with easing the "anger and polarization" between Washington and the global body.

Khalilzad, 57, was born in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, the son of a government bureaucrat in the Afghan monarchy, and first came to the United States as a high school exchange student, eventually earning a doctorate in political science at the University of Chicago. Friends say his style owes much to his Afghan roots -- courtesy, pragmatism and a flair for cultivating personal relationships.

He emerged on the U.S. political scene in the late 1970s, writing op-eds under the pseudonym Hannah Negaran to attack Soviet policy in Afghanistan. Since then, he has changed his nationality (becoming a U.S. citizen), his party (flirting briefly with the Democrats) and his foreign policy views (supporting engagement with the Taliban before advocating its overthrow). Colleagues even speculated that he might run for the Afghan presidency, a rumor Khalilzad denies.

Khalilzad has gravitated toward powerful figures, cultivating close ties with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser. He has developed strong working relationships with President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "In Afghanistan, you have to have a patron if you want to get anywhere in life," said Ahmed Rashid, a journalist who has known Khalilzad for more than 20 years. "This neocon stuff -- yes, he certainly believed it -- but he was also looking for the patronage" from powerful conservatives.

Khalilzad began working for the State Department in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan and soon focused on Afghanistan policy. He advocated military aid for the mujaheddin, pressing the administration to arm them against the Soviets.

The following decade, Paul D. Wolfowitz, then undersecretary of defense for policy, tapped Khalilzad to draft a 1992 Defense Planning Guidance that outlined plans for post-Cold War military superiority, calling for a major military buildup and a doctrine of preemptive force. Though rejected by the White House, the draft consolidated Khalilzad's standing among conservatives and would later influence the Bush administration's war strategy, according to James Mann, author of "Rise of the Vulcans," which chronicles Bush's war cabinet.

Khalilzad, a senior Pentagon official during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said, "We didn't do the right thing with the Iraqis by leaving them with Saddam and sanctions." In 1998, he signed a letter with 17 other conservatives urging President Bill Clinton to overthrow Hussein. Many of the signatories -- including Wolfowitz, Donald H. Rumsfeld and Richard Perle -- would later lay the groundwork for the military invasion of Iraq.

Khalilzad later joined Bush's National Security Council and, on the eve of the invasion, was tasked with convening a national assembly to establish an Iraqi government. But Khalilzad's plan was scrapped in favor of a U.S. military occupation, and Khalilzad was dispatched to Afghanistan as ambassador.

His work in Afghanistan and later in Iraq earned him bipartisan respect. "He's taken on dangerous jobs, he's done them well," said Douglas J. Feith, the Pentagon's top policy official during the invasion, who recently published a book countering allegations that he distorted prewar intelligence. But Feith expressed puzzlement over Khalilzad's ability to thrive while others have seen their careers shredded over Iraq: "It's rather a mystery as to why some people get some kind of treatment and other people get another."

But Khalilzad's diplomatic style has rankled subordinates, who describe him as a disorganized manager. As ambassador in Kabul, he infuriated staffers by recruiting U.S. executives to help run Afghan ministries. Former staff members have criticized him for keeping colleagues in the dark. "Zal would talk to [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai two or three times a day without an interpreter and never write a record of the meeting," said Hillary Mann Leverett, Flynt Leverett's spouse and former Afghanistan director at the National Security Council.

At the United Nations, Khalilzad pressed the body to expand its role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and oversaw imposition of moderately stronger sanctions against Iran. But he also led a botched effort for a Security Council resolution endorsing the U.S.-backed Mideast peace process launched in Annapolis last year. Israel objected, forcing the United States to withdraw the proposal and eliciting accusations by senior U.S. officials that Khalilzad was freelancing. "You can say something about coordination and so on," he responded, "but I was specifically authorized . . . to go and do this."

Khalilzad was criticized for participating in a debate with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki at the World Economic Forum in January. He acknowledges that some in the administration frowned on the move, but said that "the clash of ideas" is smart diplomacy.

In the General Assembly, Khalilzad has been willing to compromise, yielding to demands by developing countries to protect pro-Palestinian programs and reversing Bolton's refusal to contemplate Security Council expansion until U.N. management improved.

Khalilzad "has been able to charm even his adversaries," said Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, Munir Akram, who opposed the invasion of Iraq. Akram said few here hold Khalilzad's hawkish views against him: "The whole of the United Nations is littered with ironies."

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