“We have to constantly measure our policies by whether they weaken the extremists and strengthen the moderates, and do so in such a way that doesn't have counterproductive effects.
When the history of the post-9/11 period is written, few witnesses will have more firsthand knowledge than Zalmay Khalilzad. As a member of the National Security Council staff, he was in the White House on Sept. 11, 2001, and he had a direct role in formulating the U.S. response. Khalilzad subsequently served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, and he is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. As an Afghan who immigrated to the United States as a high school student, Khalilzad is also the highest-ranking Muslim in the Bush administration.
In a recent interview with National Journal'sJames Kitfield, Khalilzad discussed democracy in Iraq, the Bush administration and more. Edited excerpts follow. For previous Insider Interviews, click here.
Q: You've had a ringside seat to one of the most tumultuous periods for U.S. foreign affairs in generations. Is it true that you think the problems in the Middle East have the potential to ignite a global conflict?
Khalilzad: I do think that, geopolitically, the future of the broader Middle East is the defining challenge of our time, in the same way that managing the balance of power in Europe and subsequently the Cold War were geopolitically the defining challenges of the 19th and 20th centuries. The broader Middle East as a region is just not normal. There are too many problems that keep it from functioning well. At the same time, Islamic civilization as a whole is going through a crisis. There's a struggle between moderates and extremists, and an argument over modernity versus tradition, that ultimately will define what it means to be Muslim.
Q: Do you believe that the crisis in the Middle East has the potential to draw regional and world powers into conflict with one another?
Khalilzad: Yes, that's why I regard this as the defining issue of our time. That doesn't mean that the solution to these problems is always, or even primarily, going to be military. Military force is important in terms of fighting terrorists. We have to go after them, because they are coming after us. But not only do we have to contain extremists, we also have to empower moderates and encourage the normalization of this region. That means addressing the problems that make the region so dysfunctional, whether by finding settlements to ongoing regional conflicts; or encouraging an evolutionary transformation of authoritarian governments in the region; or consolidating new democratic orders in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. All of that will take a long time to accomplish, which is why we need to understand the full dimensions of the challenge we are facing, and develop a comprehensive strategy to confront it.
Q: With the Bush administration perceived in much of the world as overly unilateral and militaristic, how can the United States successfully lead such collective action, or win the "war of ideas" at a time when the Muslim world is awash in anti-Americanism?
Khalilzad: I think there are really two issues there. One concerns the U.S. standing in the Islamic world. In that regard, the difficulties that we've had in Iraq have had a negative impact on our standing. No question. The second issue, however, concerns the choice of whether people want to be ruled by Islamic extremists, or else within the rule of law in societies where they have access to the media and a say in who governs them. When it comes to that war of ideas, I don't think we're losing at all.
Q: So despite the unpopularity of the messenger, the message is still compelling?
Khalilzad: What I learned from my experiences on the front lines of that struggle is that people everywhere are essentially the same in their desire for those freedoms. They know these are the ideas and values that made the great countries what they are. That's why I often talked to the Afghans and Iraqis about the difficulties that America itself had in the beginning. We have come a long way as a country, and the reason is because we remained committed to these ideas of liberty and freedom. That message is still compelling.
The challenge for us, and the rest of the world, is to figure out how best to help people who share these moderate views in their fight against the extremists, without making them appear [to be] instruments of the U.S. government. That can be a tough balancing act. We have to constantly measure our policies by whether they weaken the extremists and strengthen the moderates, and do so in such a way that doesn't have counterproductive effects.
Q: Despite all the difficulties in bringing democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the empowerment of extremists in some local elections, you still don't doubt the administration's "democratization" agenda?
Khalilzad: No, I still believe that is the ultimate solution to the region's problems. But sometimes when people hear U.S. officials talk about democratization, they think we mean America should attack and replace authoritarian governments with ones we'd rather see in power. That's not at all what we mean. The circumstances in Afghanistan and Iraq were unique, but this is not something that you can bring about by military means alone.
Take the transformation of the former Soviet Union. While the military was a component in containing communism and making sure it didn't expand, there were also political, ideological, economic, and informational components to that Cold War campaign and the grand coalition between the United States, Europe, and Asia that saw it through. Of course, the issues are very different in the transformation of the Middle East, but I think we need a similar grand strategy and coalition approach. The ultimate goal has to be the normalization of this region, and democratization remains the key element in getting there.
Q: How do you respond to experts who argue that the broader Middle East region may not be ready for democracy?
Khalilzad: I would say two things about that argument. First, you do need a certain set of circumstances for democracy to take root and become effective; there is no question about that. It's not just about elections. You need democratic institutions, the rule of law, and the instruments of civil society. And some of the countries in this region do start at a low level in terms of their preparation in that regard. Yet, when I hear that argument, I don't conclude that the region will never achieve a democratic transformation.
Remember, we've heard similar arguments about other regions at other times in history. When Britain was discussing leaving India in the time of decolonization, the talk in London was all about how India would never become democratic. It was supposedly not in their blood. The same argument was made about Germany, and Japan, and about Asia in general. When you look at the Islamic world, I think you also have to look at the experience of Turkey, which despite its problems has been a great democratic success story.
Q: The Bush administration likes to cite the example of South Korea, but do you believe you've laid the groundwork with the American public for a similar long-term commitment of military forces to Afghanistan and Iraq -- say, 50 years?
Khalilzad: Well, you could go to the other extreme and argue that this democratic transformation in the Middle East will happen easily and quickly, but that would be a mistake given where we are. This is a long-term enterprise. The truth is, really big things don't happen easily or quickly, and this transformation we are talking about is a huge thing! If you read [Alexis] de Tocqueville on democracy in America, he rightfully pointed out that democracies tend to be impatient. But during the very long years of the Cold War, we also showed that we can be patient. If Americans have confidence in what we are doing, and they see that we are making progress toward that goal, then I think we can be patient as a people. That's why we in the administration need to be realistic in describing to the American people the time an enterprise like this takes. Perhaps at times we have not been very good at explaining the complexity and time involved, and people thus got an impression that things would happen at a much faster pace than was realistic.
Q: For all the tactical successes of the surge in U.S. forces in Iraq, little progress had been made on the strategic goal of political reconciliation. Why do you think that's so?
Khalilzad: In my view, the Iraqis' lack of progress on the political track is due to several factors. First, the different ethnic and religious communities have very different perspectives, and the distance between those perspectives has not yet closed appreciably. Despite the fact that they are politically dominant, for instance, the Shiites of Iraq feel very insecure. Partly because the Shiites are not yet willing to share power, the Sunnis see this as a life-and-death struggle. Therefore, they have not yet been able to come up with an agreement on how to share power.
A second problem is that the issues the Iraqis are dealing with are very complex and difficult. We're talking about how to share trillions of dollars in oil revenue; how to organize themselves in terms of power-sharing between the central government and the regions; how they delineate borders in a country where Saddam purposely drew provincial borders as a way to pit the different communities against each other. A related problem is one of individual personalities. I've dealt personally with many Iraqi leaders, and as a result of their backgrounds and their experiences living under Saddam or in exile, many of them have come to view the world in very conspiratorial terms. They see conspiracies everywhere, and that makes compromise among them hard.
Q: At times doesn't it seem that some of Iraq's neighbors really are conspiring against the central government?
Khalilzad: Iraq's neighborhood is certainly another important factor in the present political stalemate. This is not a neighborhood that encourages internal reconciliation. If Iraq were an island, I think we would have seen much more progress on political reconciliation by now, even given all the difficulties. So the regional context of the Iraq problem is very important. That's why I've worked hard at the United Nations to "internationalize" the problem, and to get the United Nations itself more involved in pushing for an internal and regional reconciliation. The United Nations actually has certain advantages in that regard. So with continued American and international pressure through the United Nations, I still think political progress can be made in Iraq. That's vital, because without that political progress the security gains we've realized with the surge will be put at risk.
Q: When the Senate recently voted overwhelmingly in support of Senator Joseph Biden's plan to promote a form of federalism in Iraq that devolves power from the central government to Iraq's provinces, why did the administration so quickly label the plan "partition" and object to the idea?
Khalilzad: The U.S. Embassy wrote of a perception inside Iraq that the Senate was pushing for partition of Iraq, so I was glad Senator Biden [D-Del.] and Leslie Gelb [a president emeritus and board senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations] wrote a follow-on article making clear that they were talking about federalism, and not partition. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with federalism. We ourselves have a federal system. But in Iraq it's not only what we do that is vital, but also how it is perceived. When I worked with Iraqis on their constitution, we purposely allowed for the option of such a federal arrangement if that is the direction the Iraqis decide to go.
I still think we have to be very careful, however, that this is not perceived in Iraq as an American grand design to divide the country.
Q: Given the escalating war of words and provocations between the United States and Iran over Tehran's meddling in Iraq, how can you possibly reach the regional reconciliation that you say is critical?
Khalilzad: The issue is only about Iraq on the surface. Iran wants the Shiites to succeed in Iraq and so do we, because we want a democracy in Iraq and the Shiites are the largest voting bloc. We just want a democracy that also respects the rights of minorities.
The real problem is that the Iranians also want the United States to fail in Iraq, because they believe our success there will lead to problems for them. First, they worry that we might one day move against them from Iraq. Second, if we were to succeed in Iraq, Tehran worries that [Iraq] will one day play the regional balancing role against Iran that it used to play, and thus they would not be able to dominate geopolitically. For both of those reasons, Iran does not want a long-term American presence in Iraq.
Q: Yet absent such a presence, doesn't Iran make many of its neighbors nervous?
Khalilzad: In fact, this broader Iranian agenda in the region does make the Saudis and other Sunni countries nervous about Iranian domination. That's another complicating factor, because those Sunni countries will support Sunnis inside Iraq to counter the Iranians. The fact that Iran and the United States have a hostile relationship is another significant factor impacting not only Iraq, but the entire region. All of those factors explain why we need robust regional diplomacy to solve these problems.
Q: But if Iran remains determined to play the role of spoiler in Iraq, won't the country remain unstable?
Khalilzad: Well, it will certainly be more difficult to stabilize Iraq than it would be if Iran weren't playing this negative role. But difficult does not mean impossible. Over the course of the last year, we have begun inflicting costs on Iran by targeting its assets and networks inside Iraq. At the same time, I would not exclude talking with Iran and trying to reach some sort of understanding with them, much as we engaged with them earlier on the issue of Afghanistan. So our policy is a combination of openness toward engagement with the Iranians if that is useful, but at the same time hitting the Iranian networks that are causing problems inside Iraq. Hopefully, that will eventually lead to a regular, institutionalized dialogue between regional players that has both the United States and Iran in the room. Without such regional cooperation, it will certainly be far more difficult to stabilize Iraq.