Magazine article The American Conservative

Don't Blame Me, I'm Just the Viceroy

Magazine article The American Conservative

Don't Blame Me, I'm Just the Viceroy

Article excerpt

The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World, Zalmay Khalilzad, St. Martin's Press, 336 pages

Midway through this earnest but peculiarly lifeless memoir, Zalmay Khalilzad recalls with evident pride a moment in 2005 when President George W. Bush commended him for being "some kind of a magician." Then serving as U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Khalilzad had earned this accolade by nudging competing factions on the Iraqi political scene to ratify a draft constitution. Here, it seemed, was a signal achievement, evidence that U.S. efforts to transform Iraq into a stable liberal democracy were bearing fruit.

As with so many other milestones and turning points in recent U.S. policy, this one turned out to be illusory. As a magician, Khalilzad proved something of a flop.

As a historical figure, however, he is not without interest. Born and raised in Afghanistan, educated in Beirut and Chicago, Khalilzad became something like the Zelig of America's post-Cold War era. Time and again, whenever a Republican occupies the White House, Khalilzad appears at the center of the action.

In 1987, there he is in the Oval Office, whispering in Ronald Reagan's ear as the Gipper entertains a leader of the Afghan mujahedin. The putatively great victory of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 finds Khalilzad in the Pentagon, crafting a grand strategy intended to perpetuate a unipolar order guaranteed by American military supremacy. On September 11, 2001, he is holding a senior post on the National Security Council staff, directly responsible for U.S. policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and points in between. George W. Bush soon has him on the road. Zal, as he is universally known, serves successively as our man in Kabul and Baghdad, and then at the United Nations.

Quite a resume! The reader yearns to share in the insights gleaned over the course of Khalilzad's self-described "journey through a turbulent world." Alas, either he has few insights to offer or he chooses to pull his punches. While the relative brevity of The Envoy counts as a plus, the contents tend to be bland and the judgments circumspect. The overall result must rank as a disappointment. Given his genuinely extraordinary career, the author owes himself a better book than he has produced.

Perhaps understandably, Khalilzad devotes the preponderance of his attention to his tenure as U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Chapter titles summarize the overall interpretation that the narrative advances. After "Accelerating Success in Afghanistan," Khalilzad sets about claiming the "Fruits of Democracy" there. Then upon moving to his next post, he devotes himself to "Repairing Iraq," before "Forging a National Unity Government" in Baghdad.

On his watch, thanks to his savvy as a diplomat, things got better. Once he left, they inexplicably fell apart. Khalilzad's bottom line would seem to be this: if you're not happy with the way things turned out, don't blame me.

But then who or what are we to blame? Since 9/11, in the region of the world that became Khalilzad's principal beat, U.S. policy has been profoundly unsuccessful. (Granted, even prior to 9/11, it wasn't all that much better.) Who better than Khalilzad, the Afghan outsider turned Washington insider, to elucidate the mix of factors that caused things to go wrong?

After all, as a student, Khalilzad had immersed himself in the milieu of U.S. national-security policy, tutored as a graduate student by the neo conservative guru Albert Wohlstetter while rotating in and out of jobs with RAND when not in government. …

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