The Pragmatic Ideologue

Meet Zalmay Khalilzad, your new UN ambassador.


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the American University of Beirut was not the likeliest place to find a budding neoconservative—less so a budding neoconservative and his future wife. Yet that's where Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Iraq who will soon take up as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, did his undergraduate work, and where he met his wife, Cheryl Benard. In those years the A.U.B. was in the throes of Third World fervor and enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause. A university yearbook from the early 1970s had a drawing of a Palestinian militant on its cover, his head covered with a keffiyeh.

Describing Khalilzad as a "neoconservative" may be simplistic. In an interview published on Monday to mark Khalilzad's departure from Iraq, the New York Times used the term unhesitatingly. But then one remembers what Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, had to say about the man with whom he worked closely in supporting the Afghan mujahideen between 1979 and 1980: "He is a broad-minded pragmatist and an insightful strategist."

To be branded "pragmatic" by a political realist such as Brzezinski demonstrates that Khalilzad is difficult to pin down with reductionist labels. If anything, his path in recent years has underlined how well he has grasped the impossibility of being an unyielding neocon amid the complexities of the Middle East. That's why it seems fair to wonder whether Khalilzad, who first studied politics in Beirut, where hard truths and sharp angles dissolve in the warm Levant air, is living proof that, when hit by reality, there is no such thing as an ideologically inflexible neoconservative.

It is not hard to see why the foreign-born allies of American neocons have often been those whose causes benefited from greater American combativeness and interventionism. Their agendas and merits, or demerits, notwithstanding, whether we are talking about the Iraqi Ahmad Chalabi, the Syrian Farid Ghadry, or the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition in Lebanon, all these groups or individuals have sided with the neocons and their more traditional confederates in the Bush administration mainly to take advantage of Washington's willingness after 9/11 to challenge the debilitating status quo in their own countries.

In many ways that's how Khalilzad, too, began his career. While teaching political science at Columbia University in the late 1970s, he worked with Brzezinski on U.S. strategy toward his native Afghanistan, which Soviet forces had just invaded. Though he was not, strictly speaking, a political exile, it seems defensible to assume that Khalilzad's Afghan side is what primarily shaped his political perspective early on, rather than his embrace of an America-centered view of power and international relations. At the same time, it would be a mistake to forget that he had, by then, worked closely with Alfred Wohlstetter, a University of Chicago strategist, who was also a guru to Paul Wolfowitz. Wohlstetter was a skeptic on nuclear arms control, and persuaded many young neocons of the need for the United States to remain military superior to the U.S.S.R.

Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s, Khalilzad drifted in and out of government, working mostly on Afghan and Middle Eastern issues, before serving between 1990 and 1992 at the Pentagon as deputy under-secretary for policy planning. It was in that role, as an assistant to Wolfowitz, that Khalilzad played a major part in drafting a document whose ideas would return to shape policy under President George W. Bush. When then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney asked for an overhaul of American defense thinking in light of the deep changes taking place in the world, Wolfowitz was tasked with preparing a Defense Planning Guidance. The document's most controversial assertion was that the U.S. should strive to be the sole superpower, and fight off all foreign challengers. This was later watered down, though it would reappear in a more muscular formulation in the National Security Strategy of 2002: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." Wolfowitz was nominally in charge of the document, but he never saw the final draft, according to James Mann, in his book Rise of the Vulcans. The main author was Khalilzad, who was working under the orders of I. Lewis Libby.

Khalilzad would remain active in the anterooms of foreign affairs during the 1990s, from his perch at the Rand Corporation and as a signatory of the January 26, 1998 Project for the New American Century letter urging President Bill Clinton to remove Saddam Hussein from power. When Bush was elected in 2000, Khalilzad was through warming the bench. After a short stint at Donald Rumseld's Pentagon, he was appointed senior director for Southwest Asia, Near East, and North African affairs under Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council.

Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia with extensive experience in Iraqi Kurdistan, would later tell Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker: "Khalilzad was absolutely part of the neocon cabal that brought the war to Iraq." In June 2005, Khalilzad left Afghanistan, where he had been ambassador since 2003, to take over the embassy in Baghdad. Yet far from bringing ideological severity to his new post, he waded in with the litheness of an Arab merchant. This would allow Galbraith to also observe, echoing Brzezinski: "I credit him with bringing the first dose of realism I've seen in this Administration since they came to Iraq."

Throughout his ambassadorship, Khalilzad was an informal, and inveterate, backroom arm bender. His main achievement was persuading the Iraqis to ratify their Constitution. He also sought to enhance Sunni participation in the political process–a decision that angered the Shiite groups that had come to dominate the Iraqi government. This juggling act was skillful, but ultimately Khalilzad has left behind a country even more unstable than when he first moved into the Green Zone. And what will linger in people's minds is that the former ambassador backhandedly confirmed that the U.S. has very few options left in Iraq. Khalilzad did so by admitting to the Timesthat he had spoken with the enemy: "There were discussions with the representatives of various [Iraqi insurgent] groups in the aftermath of the elections, and during the formation of the government before the Samarra incident, and some discussions afterwards as well."

During that time, Bush administration officials were saying there could be no negotiations with the insurgents, who were killing American soldiers on a daily basis. Yet through his admission, Khalilzad legitimized a more adaptable approach to events in Iraq–ceding his successor Ryan Crocker a wider margin of maneuver that he will be happy to have.

Khalilzad will be replacing a more austere neocon, John Bolton, at the U.N. Bolton may have been one tough bastard, but he could be the personification of practicality when haggling over resolutions with the other permanent members of the Security Council, particularly on Middle Eastern matters. Maybe there are no neocons in the slippery trenches of international diplomacy. If so, Khalilzad is our Exhibit One.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon