What America Can Learn from Zalmay Khalilzad

What America Can Learn from Zalmay Khalilzad

From Kabul to Baghdad, he has reconciled realism to American ideals.

Regarding process, Wohlstetter “urged [Khalilzad] to think through and plan for contingencies.” Wohlstetter taught Khalilzad not to feel certain that policy will unfold according to plan. In strategy, one is dealing with human beings; one must “know [one’s] counterparts— discover what they value and how they see the world— in order to understand their actions and anticipate their responses.” Khalilzad writes, “Mirror imaging—projecting our way of thinking onto others—was a surefire way to misread an opponent. And, whether dealing with adversaries or not, you need to empathize with other actors in order to understand them.”

Such a perspective contrasts with some realists, who “black-box” their opponents’ attributes. That is, they do not believe it is necessary to look within the minds of others, as Khalilzad does. He is an area specialist who is also trained in building scenarios and alternative futures; in this respect, the next president of the United States would be wise to attract Khalilzad back to public service.

Turn the clock back in time: Khalilzad saw the fight for the Middle East as a “perpetual contest” that included extra-regional powers. He became aware of imperial Iran and its “significant economic and political weight among Shia communities in other Gulf countries.”

For New Year’s Eve 1978, Khalilzad traveled to France. He obtained a meeting with “a principal leader of the Iranian opposition, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,” in exile outside Paris. After the revolution, he had been told, Iran would undergo “normalization,” and the clerics would return to the religious domain—at least that was the spin by those who vetted Khalilzad prior to his session with Khomeini.

But when Khalilzad met with Khomeini, the ayatollah maintained that “legitimate political power could belong only to a religious leader and his followers,” a statement that greatly perturbed Khalilzad. Returning to Columbia University, Khalilzad repeated Khomeini’s words to Iranian colleagues and students. “Incensed by the shah,” however, “they generally brushed my reactions aside in favor of their own rosy revolutionary narrative.

“On February 1, 1979,” he writes, “a little over a month after my trip to France, Khomeini returned to Tehran and installed himself as Supreme Leader.”

“What’s past is prologue,” wrote Shakespeare; Iran’s revolutionary history sets the context for both its present and future. Like Henry Kissinger, another scholar-diplomat who cannot be pigeonholed, Khalilzad’s writings show he is well aware of Tehran’s history and would approach negotiations with Tehran accordingly.

What lessons can Khalilzad’s memoir teach for U.S. policy?

First, regarding theory: recognize bureaucratic principles, as modified by recent research, which is quite critical of these principles.

Second, with respect to history, reconcile realism without illusion to idealism, aimed at preservation of freedom, as the central task of statecraft. Such a posture is the essence of the public service of Ambassador Khalilzad.

Third, concerning threat perception, think outside the box. Because an “inner-and-outer” like Khalilzad thinks outside the box in the Wohlstetter tradition, Khalilzad is positioned to continue making contributions to the national interest, and to international peace and security in general.

Raymond Tanter is Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. He formerly was on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan Bush Administration and served as Representative of the Secretary of Defense to arms control talks in Europe.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore