Alumnus Khalilzad nominated to U.N. post

By Nicholas Nardini

President Bush has nominated University of Chicago alumnus Zalmay Khalilzad as the new U.S. envoy to the United Nations.

The appointment, formalized yesterday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, will become final after Senate confirmation. Khalilzad’s predecessor, John Bolton, was unable to win such confirmation, and resigned last month before his temporary appointment concluded.

A native of Afghanistan, Khalilzad attended a prestigious high school in Kabul before enrolling for undergraduate study at the American University of Beirut. He received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1979 and began teaching political science at Columbia University. He received a Council on Foreign Relations fellowship and joined the State Department in 1984. He later served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Khalilzad currently serves as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, a position he has held since June 2005. As ambassador, he has worked closely with the newly elected Iraqi government and was instrumental in drafting Iraq’s constitution. Early last month, Khalilzad had signaled his desire to leave his position as ambassador.

Bush’s decision comes amidst a flurry of policy and personnel change at the White House. In addition to the high-profile departures of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and White House Counsel Harriet Miers, the President is expected to outline a new policy for operations in Iraq, and to name replacements for General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, and General George Casey, the head commander in Iraq. The moves have been seen as an effort to reassert Bush’s conviction to remain in Iraq for the long term, and have been attacked by new Congressional Democrats.

It is likely that Khalilzad, too, will face stiff opposition from the now Democrat-controlled Senate. In his early years at the State Department, he worked under neoconservative icon Paul Wolfowitz, another Chicago alumnus, and since then has maintained a hawkish profile. Khalilzad has advocated U.S. support for a Mujahideen coup in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and tried to convince the first President Bush to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

At the same time, he is known as a sharp power broker willing to make compromises for peace and practicality, as demonstrated by the concessions he made to Kurdish politicians during deliberation over Iraq’s constitution.

Robert Pape, professor of political science and author of the popular book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, called Khalilzad a smart choice for the U.N. envoy.

“He brings a neoconservative viewpoint that the Bush administration will be comfortable with, and at the same time he has a reputation for being an excellent tactician, which is invaluable in the U.N.,” Pape said. “This is another major instance where an alumnus from the University of Chicago is playing a major role in U.S. foreign policy. Both Khalilzad and Wolfowitz studied underneath the same mentor—Albert Wohlstetter. Wolfowitz was perhaps his first protégé, and Khalilzad was his last.”

Wohlstetter, who taught at the University from 1964 to 1980, was an influential political theorist who worked against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and argued for alternatives to mutually assured destruction.

Not everyone is happy about Bush’s latest selection. Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is quoted in The New York Times as saying that removing Khalilzad from Iraq would leave a “vacuum,” since newcomers to Iraq need a long time to learn the mechanics of the country.

Pape also sounded a cautionary note, citing Khalilzad’s role in Afghanistan as a precedent.

“As ambassador to Afghanistan, he brokered deals with warlords that put [President of Afghanistan Hamid] Karzai in a central position of power,” Pape said. “After [Khalilzad] left, those deals, and the situation there, have unraveled.”

If confirmed, Khalilzad will be the first Muslim to hold a cabinet-level position in the U.S. government, and will enjoy an influential position within the U.N.—Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations’ new Secretary General, has already selected him for the position of Undersecretary General for Political Affairs.