Midway through this earnest but peculiarly lifeless memoir, Zalmay Khalilzad recalls with evident pride a moment in 2005 when President George W. Bush commended him for being “some kind of a magician.” Then serving as U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Khalilzad had earned this accolade by nudging competing factions on the Iraqi political scene to ratify a draft constitution. Here, it seemed, was a signal achievement, evidence that U.S. efforts to transform Iraq into a stable liberal democracy were bearing fruit. 

As with so many other milestones and turning points in recent U.S. policy, this one turned out to be illusory. As a magician, Khalilzad proved something of a flop.

As a historical figure, however, he is not without interest. Born and raised in Afghanistan, educated in Beirut and Chicago, Khalilzad became something like the Zelig of America’s post-Cold War era. Time and again, whenever a Republican occupies the White House, Khalilzad appears at the center of the action.

In 1987, there he is in the Oval Office, whispering in Ronald Reagan’s ear as the Gipper entertains a leader of the Afghan mujahedin. The putatively great victory of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 finds Khalilzad in the Pentagon, crafting a grand strategy intended to perpetuate a unipolar order guaranteed by American military supremacy. On September 11, 2001, he is holding a senior post on the National Security Council staff, directly responsible for U.S. policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and points in between. George W. Bush soon has him on the road. Zal, as he is universally known, serves successively as our man in Kabul and Baghdad, and then at the United Nations.

Quite a résumé! The reader yearns to share in the insights gleaned over the course of Khalilzad’s self-described “journey through a turbulent world.” Alas, either he has few insights to offer or he chooses to pull his punches. While the relative brevity of The Envoy counts as a plus, the contents tend to be bland and the judgments circumspect. The overall result must rank as a disappointment. Given his genuinely extraordinary career, the author owes himself a better book than he has produced.

Perhaps understandably, Khalilzad devotes the preponderance of his attention to his tenure as U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Chapter titles summarize the overall interpretation that the narrative advances. After “Accelerating Success in Afghanistan,” Khalilzad sets about claiming the “Fruits of Democracy” there. Then upon moving to his next post, he devotes himself to “Repairing Iraq,” before “Forging a National Unity Government” in Baghdad.

On his watch, thanks to his savvy as a diplomat, things got better. Once he left, they inexplicably fell apart. Khalilzad’s bottom line would seem to be this: if you’re not happy with the way things turned out, don’t blame me.

But then who or what are we to blame? Since 9/11, in the region of the world that became Khalilzad’s principal beat, U.S. policy has been profoundly unsuccessful. (Granted, even prior to 9/11, it wasn’t all that much better.) Who better than Khalilzad, the Afghan outsider turned Washington insider, to elucidate the mix of factors that caused things to go wrong?

After all, as a student, Khalilzad had immersed himself in the milieu of U.S. national-security policy, tutored as a graduate student by the neoconservative guru Albert Wohlstetter while rotating in and out of jobs with RAND when not in government. Following the Cold War, Paul Wolfowitz, another Wohlstetter disciple, recruited him to join his staff in the Pentagon. After 9/11, Khalilzad worked with or for all of the key American players, from the president and Dick Cheney to Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and L. Paul Bremer, along with various three- and four-star military commanders. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, he won the confidence of politicians, clerics, warlords, and other powerbrokers. Like Henry and Zbig, he became one of those figures whose last name became redundant. Everyone knew Zal.

Yet while offering a detailed account of various conferences and tête-à-têtes with foreign leaders, Khalilzad has remarkably little to say about matters likely to interest most readers. Regarding personalities encountered along the way, he offers only cursory sketches. Yes, Bush was given to adolescent tomfoolery, Rumsfeld was difficult and turf-conscious, and, apart from her loyalty to the president, Rice was ill-suited to the role of national security adviser: none of this comes as news.

Meanwhile, on controversies ranging from the Bush administration’s weird infatuation with Ahmad Chalabi to its preoccupation with Iraq’s putative—but nonexistent—stock of weapons of mass destruction, he has little to say. Bush’s discovery of an “Axis of Evil”? His conviction that waging a “global war on terrorism” sounded like a good idea? His embrace of preventive war? His expectations of Iraq making a seamless transition from police state to pro-Western democracy? Khalilzad skims past each of these. As for the ill-fated decision to disband the Iraqi army once U.S. forces had overthrown Saddam, Khalilzad lays the blame squarely on Bremer. Apparently, no one in Washington or anywhere else had a clue.

thisarticleappears julaug16Khalilzad rightly fingers Pakistan for its double-dealing in Afghanistan but doesn’t explain why the Bush administration ignored that country’s blatant lies and deceptions. He offers tantalizing hints of Iranian willingness after 9/11 to engage with the United States on issues of mutual concern. Yet he has little to say about why the Bush administration rejected such offers.

Referring repeatedly to what he calls an ongoing “crisis of Islamic civilization,” Khalilzad clings to the view that it is somehow incumbent upon the United States to resolve that crisis. Indeed, he concludes, it remains America’s job to “shape the world,” even if the shaping efforts to which he himself contributed produced few positive results. Khalilzad’s prescription: try harder, which implies doubling down on the application of American military might. “As difficult as the world is today,” he writes, “it could get much worse if the United States retreats.”

Wohlstetter, he writes, taught his students to “identify and question [their] assumptions.” This is the one thing that Khalilzad and other members of the foreign-policy establishment adamantly refuse to do. Assumptions have long since become dogma. There is no direction except onward, regardless of the costs.

Andrew Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.