WASHINGTON – Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, heard nothing but praise from senators during his confirmation hearing Thursday for his next assignment, the Bush administration's chief diplomat at the United Nations.
The favorable reception came for the president's current point man for Iraq policies that Democrats and even some Republicans say are wrongheaded or futile.
"In this time of crisis, I believe that you are the best and the brightest to be representing us in this world community of nations," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told Khalilzad.
Added Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent: "I cannot think of anyone more qualified or more appropriate. He represents the best of America. He is a true American dream success story."
No doubt Khalilzad has the credentials to be U.S. ambassador to the U.N.: years of foreign policy expertise, two tours as ambassador under difficult conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mostly, though, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seemed relieved by the simple fact that Khalilzad is not John Bolton, the last diplomat President Bush sent to represent Washington at the United Nations.
The 2005 fight over Bolton's nomination was among the most bruising of Bush's presidency. It lasted months and included emotional defections by Republicans. In the end, Bolton never won Senate confirmation, even though Republicans held the majority.
Bush gave Bolton a recess appointment that expired in January.
"I think you're the nominee that we can be proud of," Nelson told Khalilzad.
Some senators took swipes at Bolton, but mostly they praised Khalilzad and all but assured him a swift confirmation. There were skeptical questions about the war in Iraq, but not one lawmaker seemed to blame Khalilzad for any of the administration's missteps.
"While we disagreed in many cases on policies that you have to implement, I think you did a very skilled and able job of carrying out those policies," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told Khalilzad. "We look forward to working with you at the United Nations."
The Afghan-born Khalilzad is a gregarious, glad-handing diplomat who speaks several languages. He is a favorite at the White House, where he is known as "Zal," and a confidant of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has known him since they worked in the administration of Bush's father.
In Iraq, Khalilzad won trust among Sunni leaders and drew them into greater political participation. But he has been unable to counter the backlash among Shiite politicians and leaders or the sectarian violence that has undermined the country's political successes.
He noted delays and uneven progress toward a unified Iraqi government, but reaffirmed the administration's opposition to outside deadlines for U.S. military involvement.
Iraqis "are facing very, very big and difficult issues," he said. "And their sense of time is not the same as ours, really. We tend to be very impatient."
Bolton was disliked by many top diplomats at the U.N., who complained that he was abrasive and uncooperative even as he scored points for U.S. interests.
"I'll focus sharply on the interests of the United States," Khalilzad told the senators. "At the same time, I'm ready to engage, to listen and to work with others in a cooperative spirit."
Bolton also was a chief spokesman for the administration view, since softened, that diplomatic overtures to adversaries such as Iran, North Korea or Syria amounted to rewards for bad behavior.
Khalilzad noted that he shook hands with Iranian and Syrian diplomats last weekend and began discussions about those border nations' involvement in Iraq. The U.S. accuses Iran and Syria of undermining the Baghdad government or aiding terrorism and violence.
"I believe that a combination of pressure with regard to issues of concern with an openness to engage with the intent to change behavior, to effect behavior, is the right mix," Khalilzad said.