The day Zalmay Khalilzad, the new US ambassador to the United Nations, came to New York, the question was put to Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa’s envoy, as to what he thought of his new colleague. “He can’t be as bad as Bolton,” the smiling ambassador joked. Mr Kumalo is known for his irreverent quips, but this one perfectly nailed the mood at the UN.
Mr Khalilzad, Afghan-born, Lebanon-educated, Muslim and foreign-accented, is, to many minds, the anti-Bolton. Where his predecessor thumped his chest like a rebel with a point to prove, the tall former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan exudes a quieter power, and immediately appeared at ease in the UN’s hallways.
In a brief first press appearance last week – before jetting off to the Balkans to address the thorny issue of the future of Kosovo – he wasted no time in asserting that he was going to be a listener and a conciliator.
“I will engage, I will work hard, I will listen, I’ll be respectful,” Mr Khalilzad told journalists. He had already won admiration for his surprising assertion, during his confirmation testimony, that the “United Nations, which was a signal achievement in the great period of international institution-building after the second world war, stands as the most successful collective security body in history”.
In a building where style can be everything, diplomats and officials have been quick to praise Mr Khalilzad for his reputedly constructive outlook, and approachable manner. In his previous post, he showed a willingness to talk to Sunni and Iranian politicians when others might not have felt ready, suggesting a readiness to explore all options.
Yet he will quickly need to put that goodwill to the test, for his first month also coincides with the US’s rotating presidency of the UN Security Council, and a slew of difficult problems on the agenda.
Crafting deals on Iran, Lebanon, Darfur, Kosovo, UN reform and even a possible ramp-up of the UN’s role in Iraq will take all the diplomatic skills he can muster; and this time he does not negotiate from the strength of a proconsul he enjoyed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After asserting his openness to dialogue, Mr Khalilzad was quick to offer another hint as to his outlook. “I also will speak for what we believe and with the experience that I have, what can work,” he said. “The future of … the broader Middle East, in my judgment, is the defining challenge of our time.” During his confirmation he spoke of the “transformation of the Middle East”.
Several analysts warned that while his manner is more in tune with the niceties of international diplomacy than Mr Bolton’s, it belies some very firm ideas, which might not be as far from Mr Bolton’s as some would like to imagine.
Mr Khalilzad is said to resist the label of neo-con, yet to many eyes he has many of that philosophy’s credentials. In Chicago, he studied closely with Albert Wohlstetter, credited with influencing a number of neoconservative thinkers.
He was a co-signatory of a famous 1998 letter sent by the Project for the New American Century to President Bill Clinton, calling for action on Iraq. In it, he and others warned: “American policy cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the UN Security Council.”
Despite this background, UN officials say he is a man they can work with, and one of the best choices the Bush administration could have made. Mr Khalilzad is said to be close to the UN’s arch (now retired) troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi, whose house he would visit when they were both in Afghanistan.
In his profile in the New Yorker, from December 2005, John Lee Anderson quoted one international official as describing the two, Mr Khalilzad and Mr Brahimi, as playing a good cop-bad cop role in the Afghanistan Bonn conference, with “Zal” as the bad cop.
Mr Brahimi, in the same article, said he had “a capacity to pick or to find a common ground between views that, to the casual observer, look totally irreconcilable”. One senior US expert on the UN suggested that while Mr Khalilzad was conservative, his conservatism was that of the immigrant rather than the ideologue.
Edward Luck, a Columbia University professor who has advised Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said it was important that Mr Khalilzad’s first “real exposure to the UN came through his work in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is a good thing”.
“He’s not beginning with the HQ bureaucracy. He began with the UN in the field; he sees how the organization can be helpful.” But he added that while “in style it’ll be night and day compared to his predecessor … I don’t think in substance he will be that different.”