America's Diplomatic Repairman

Perhaps the toughest repair job in the world belongs to a man who wields not a screwdriver, but a gavel. Zalmay Khalilzad is America's ambassador to the United Nations, an organization the Bush administration seemed to openly scorn for years, and now needs.

Khalilzad has the unenviable job of rebuilding the diplomatic bridges the U.S. has burned over the years.

"Well, I don't see myself that way," he said in reference to the term "repairman." "My style is to be a problem-solver, to bring people together, to work problems, to engage others, to listen, to argue, to be persistent."

His openness and willingness to listen marks a shift from the Bush administration's past approach. But at this late hour in the Bush presidency, what can Khalilzad really accomplish for America at the U.N.?

From the Cuban missile crisis to the debate over Iraq, the U.N. has been the scene of epochal moments in world history. But many Americans are dubious -- they want to know, how effective is the U.N. for Americans today?

"The U.N. does work," said Khalilzad. "But it works slowly. If we can get others to go along with what we want, or if there is a problem where we can come together here, all countries who are members of the Security Council, it gives the decision that much more legitimacy in the eyes of people around the world. And it also reduces the burden on us, if we were to do it alone."

So, all the ambassadors have to pretend to get along -- even if their countries don't.

Social Life at the U.N.

In the movies, life at the U.N. is glamorous and full of intrigue. Remember Cary Grant, caught up in espionage in "North by Northwest"? And more recently, there was Nicole Kidman in "The Interpreter," overhearing an assassination plot in the General Assembly. In real life, however, the U.N. is a lot more bureaucratic and a lot more social.

"A big indicator of success in the U.N. is if you can have two dinners in the same night," Khalilzad joked. "And I'm sacrificing the size of my waist for my country, so we'll have two meals tonight."

Khalilzad makes the diplomatic rounds, and he is known for socializing with and listening to ambassadors from every country, no matter how small.

He also enjoys an incredible perk of an ambassador's life: the deluxe apartment the State Department rents at the Waldorf, a home he shares with his wife Cheryl Bernard, and his "Diplo Dog" Griffin.

"He loves big receptions," said Bernard. "The problem is his size 'cause he can easily get stepped on."

Since 1947, the Waldorf is where America's U.N. ambassadors have lived, including President Bush's father, who filled the post in the 1970s.

Mr. Fix-It

Khalilzad has been the Bush administration's go-to guy, an international Mr. Fix-it, for years.

First, in 2001, he was sent to his native Afghanistan, to oversee the birth of the post-Taliban Afghan government.

Then, in 2005, with Iraq sliding into chaos, he was sent to Baghdad.

He spent two tough years there, under fire, sometimes literally. When insurgents fired a mortar -- during a ceremony to hand over one of Saddam Hussein's palaces to local Iraqi authorities in Tikrit -- the dignitaries were left scrambling for cover.

But the journey from Baghdad to the Waldorf is more logical than it might at first appear.

The war in Iraq, in addition to everything else, has marked one of the most dramatic and fateful chapters in the history of the United Nations.

On February 5, 2003, then Secretary of State Colin Powell promised the world that the United States had proof Saddam Hussein was amassing and concealing weapons of mass destruction. Virtually everything he said was wrong. How much damage did that do to the standing of the United States?

"I know Secretary Powell, and I have the highest regard for him. I worked for him. And he's a man of great integrity. And what he said was what we believed as a country, to be true. It turned out not to be true. But it wasn't knowingly misleading the world," said Khalilzad. "I suppose the lesson is that we need to be cautious about the level of certainty with which we speak."

It begs the question: the next time an American ambassador or official says there is a threat to world security, who's going to believe him or her?

"I think we would have to work extra hard to convince countries," said Khalilzad.

New Threats

Now, Iran's nuclear programs are the focus of the Bush administration -- but this time, the approach, so far, is very different.

The Bush administration has worked slowly and patiently through the U.N. to impose sanctions on Iran. Nevertheless, the president insists "all options are on the table."

Khalilzad said that sanctions only work in "rare circumstances," but they are the first step necessary before taking tougher action. In time, he said, it will become clear whether Iran can be sanctioned out of its nuclear ambitions -- or whether "tougher measures" will be put on the table.

It's hard slogging, diplomacy at the U.N. But sometimes, something must be done.

Last month, after violence and intimidation marred the election in Zimbabwe, the U.N. condemned Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in strong terms -- a rare moment of agreement. But did it affect the people of Zimbabwe?

"Well, it has helped them to the extent that they know that they are not alone, that the world is with them, that the government that is oppressing them is isolated in the world," Khalilzad said.

The U.S. is now seeking sanctions against Mugabe. So far, the Security Council has not acted.

Looking Toward the Future

Time is running out for Khalilzad at the U.N. The president he serves is a lame duck, and the international community is in the throes of full-on Oba-mania. There's "no doubt," said Khalilzad, that Obama's nomination has had a positive effect on the world's image of America.

"There is excitement, there is curiosity. The fact that an African-American has become the nominee of one of the major parties -- could be the next president of the United States -- is, in the U.N. context, they don't quite believe it, and I think this has been good for our country."

In the end, then, the big problems, such as Iran, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation will await the next president, whoever that might be.

Khalilzad will be gone. But there's no question his tenure at the U.N. has changed the tone the U.S. takes here. And, after the turmoil of the last few years, that counts as progress.