Khalilzad: A Step in the Right Direction?

Zalmay Khalilzad's reputation as a skilled diplomat, consensus-builder, and negotiator could ease U.S.-U.N. tensions.

President Bush’s nomination of Zalmay Khalilzad, the current ambassador to Iraq and former ambassador to Afghanistan, for the position of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations offers some hope for the future of U.S.-U.N. relations. Khalilzad gained a reputation in Iraq and Afghanistan as a skilled diplomat and consensus-builder, and as someone willing to be inclusive and flexible at the negotiating table. These characteristics, which are essential for any worthwhile ambassador, were ones that John Bolton, Khalilzad’s most recent predecessor at the United Nations, completely lacked.

Bolton’s hostility toward the United Nations, his uncompromising neoconservative ideology, and his acerbic attitude toward others were the main roadblocks to his permanent appointment as ambassador to the United Nations. Khalilzad’s supporters point out that his temperament and style, unlike that of Bolton, could help to ease U.S.-U.N. tensions and create a more positive, cooperative environment in which the United States and United Nations could work.

Yet Khalilzad does come from a neoconservative background, and he has worked under the tutelage of controversial figures such as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz in the Department of Defense and the White House. The international disdain for the Bush administration’s foreign policy agenda, which has often been contemptuous of multilateralism and strong international institutions, combined with Khalilzad’s loyalty to the agenda, may raise suspicion of him at the United Nations. And Khalilzad’s former ties to a controversial oil company have drawn criticism.

Despite these links to the neoconservatism movement and big oil, Khalilzad brings a necessary understanding of the importance of the U.S.-U.N. relationship and the need to create a more effective international body. Khalilzad confirmed his commitment to U.N. reform in his nomination hearing while also pledging to focus the world body’s attention on ending the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, improving the UN’s peacekeeping capacity, combating global warming, and continuing to address the threats posed by the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. He also hopes to have the United Nations play a more vigorous role in Iraq by helping create incentives for the Iraqi government to work at a faster pace toward political reconciliation. He will certainly need to work closely with the U.N. Secretariat and others in the administration to ensure that the United States plays a more constructive role in these efforts.

Khalilzad’s ethnic background as an Afghan-born Muslim may prove to be an advantage and quell suspicions regarding U.S. motives in the Middle East. As Representative Donald Payne (D-NJ) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said, “it could be helpful to have a Muslim representative, to show that the United States is multicultural, that we are not fighting Islam …” But as is the case with temperament, his background cannot overcome the underlying U.S.-U.N. tensions based on policy and philosophical differences on such issues as when using force is appropriate and how best to move forward on U.N. reform.

Khalilzad’s appointment will be seen as an encouraging sign by those in the international community that the United States is taking the United Nations seriously again, or is at least willing to try. Yet the bulk of his effectiveness will be determined by the content of Bush administration foreign policy and the U.S. government’s stance toward the world body. For Khalilzad to be successful, he will have to be able to change substance, not just style.

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