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Our 'viceroy' to the U.N.

An Afghan-born Sunni Muslim, Zalmay Khalilzad would be a strong symbol in representing the U.S.

January 09, 2007

ZALMAY KHALILZAD is not the kind of soft-spoken diplomat who goes over well at the United Nations. President Bush's choice for U.S. ambassador to the U.N., dubbed "the viceroy" during his stint as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, is a neoconservative hawk known for his autocratic style. Yet he is also charismatic and can be charming; certainly compared to his predecessor, he's a breath of fresh air.

Former Ambassador John R. Bolton was a spectacularly poor choice for the U.N., given that he was appointed at a time when the U.S. should have been focusing on mending fences with the international community after ignoring its reservations on the invasion of Iraq. His arrogant refusal to compromise in a forum in which compromise is a necessity for progress only exacerbated American isolation. Bush's decision in 2005 to install him as a recess appointment when it became clear that he wouldn't be approved by the Senate was an unconscionable end run around constitutional checks and balances.

Khalilzad is a polished and experienced foreign service official who is quite capable of flexibility, as he proved during tough negotiations over the governance of both Afghanistan and Iraq. Insiders expect him to sail through the Senate confirmation process.

In what would be a testament to this nation's diversity, the Afghan-born Khalilzad would become the first Muslim U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. His religious and ethnic background have strong symbolic value in countering Muslim suspicions that the U.S. is engaged in a religious crusade against Islam around the world. It also makes him particularly qualified to mediate conflicts over the best approach to such hotspots as Iran and Lebanon.

Khalilzad has been an able U.S. representative in Baghdad, even if his religious affiliation has caused some Iraqis to grumble about his allegiances. A Sunni Muslim, he has been a strong advocate for increasing Sunni participation in Iraqi politics and for cracking down on Shiite death squads accused of murderous rampages against Sunnis, going so far as to say that the militias pose the greatest threat to Iraq's stability. He is right, and Bush's choice for Khalilzad's successor in Iraq -- experienced diplomat Ryan C. Crocker -- will no doubt continue making this case.

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