Zalmay Khalilzad was first Ambassador from the U.S.A. to Afghanistan, then to Iraq, and eventually to the United Nations. I picked up his book, The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey through a Turbulent World, because I continue to struggle with how to cultivate peace and prosperity throughout the Middle East and Arab, Israeli, and Persian worlds. As a native Afghan, naturalized citizen of the U.S.A., and Muslim, his views deserve careful attention.
Khalilzad is balanced in his portrayal of almost all those individuals he notes in his book, although readers should understand his cultural context and life experience in order to understand the perspective he offers. As an example, his portrayal of George W. Bush, the U.S.A. President with whom he worked most closely, recounts Bush’s deep interest in understanding what was going on in the Middle East, his support of Khalilzad in proposing sometimes unpopular strategies, but in the end bemoaning Bush’s lack of follow-through with the nation building strategies Khalilzad believed were necessary to move forward. Khalilzad’s analyses of Bush and other politicians recognized the diverging pressures of inward (within nation) and outward (interaction and diplomacy with other nations) forces that sometimes cause heads of state to appear inconsistent and unpredictable. The key learning from these analyses were that, when seeking to understand the actions of presidents and prime ministers, it is critical to understand to which audience the politician is attempting to appeal.
The first two-thirds of the book recounted Khalilzad’s childhood in Afghanistan, coming to the U.S.A. as a foreign exchange student in 1966, returning in 1974 For graduate study at the University of Chicago, and on through his diplomatic career progression. There is no question that Khalilzad is worldly in his view and he is very committed to democratization anywhere in the world where opportunity presents itself. Thus, he favors intervention rather than staying distant from conflicts in other parts of the world and he is not reticent about destabilizing bad heads of state and working toward regime change. Taken in this context, Khalilzad’s recounting of the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraqi are revealing; the errors he asserts are primarily of not engaging deeply enough and not staying long enough to finish the regime change and nation building in each of these cases. Khalilzad’s reflections reinforce that factionalization among countries and religious groups requires deep understanding but can ultimately be tamed through diplomacy that includes both reconstruction/nation building as well as provision of security forces.
Specifically in relation to Iraq but also relevant to his experience in Afghanistan, Khalilzad identified the following lessons:
- Do not assume that local politics will take care of themselves in the aftermath of regime change.
- Geopolitical vacuums are dangerous things.
- Foster conditions that bring out the better instincts of local leaders.
- Exercise presidential command.
- Pursue political and security efforts in tandem. (77% through digital text)
In particular, changing course during the process of destabilization and regime change is not a good thing and doing so has cost the U.S.A. considerable credibility and trust in a number of places around the world.
Khalilzad identified several trends he believes represent a threat to the U.S.A.: “the collapse of order in many developing countries; the rise of terrorism and extremism; Europe’s triple crises of a loss of confidence in Brussels, threats from Putin’s Russia, and the conflicts of the greater Middle East; and the Chinese push for regional hegemony.” (83% through digital text) He goes on to say that the worst strategy for the U.S.A. to pursue now is to retreat from the world; Iraq and Syria offer examples of where staying at a distance can cause greater problems than more active involvement. He indicates that the U.S.A. should promote a regional balance of power in the Middle East and should avoid taking sides on the sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Khalilzad also sees the U.S.A. as an unusual immigrant country that continues to reinvent itself through experimentation and innovation, a characteristic that contrasts with many other countries and cultures that “see problems as permanent and solutions as the inevitable start of new problems.” (86% into digital text)
As I concluded Envoy, Khalilzad authored an article for Politico Magazine, “’We misled you:’ How the Saudis are coming clean on funding terrorism,” The article describes Saudi Arabia’s support for Islamist splinter groups as a way to initially defeat Egypt’s Nasser from unifying the Arab/Islamic world and then used later to support extremist views in order to resist Russia’s growing influence in places like Afghanistan. Admitting that their strategy had metastasized into a monster that could destroy them, Saudi officials couldn’t own up to their role when questions about the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.A. were raised. Why would Saudi Arabia now want to come forward? There is new and youthful leadership who know that they have to transform the nation in order to survive; in Khalilzad’s words, “Riyadh views modernization as the vehicle through which the Saudi state, at long last, con confront and defeat extremism, foster a dynamic private sector and master the looming economic challenges” it now faces. While Khalilzad recognized that there are many challenges ahead, he portrayed the changing Saudi approach as one that could allow them to regain status as a Middle East regional power and a model for how to move forward in many other conflict areas.
We can only hope but Khalilzad’s informed perspective at least provides a rationale for why hope is warranted.