I'm not sure of this, but my hunch is that Zalmay Khalilzad is probably the highest level Muslim in the Bush administration, and he's brought a skill set of diplomatic dexterity to the Ambassadorial position at the United Nations vacated by John Bolton.
Various UN watchers, international diplomats, and even other colleagues of his inside the White House see that Khalilzad has bolstered America's position and credentials at the United Nations.
But now someone in the White House (and I have a short list of who it might have been) is sniping at Ambassador Khalilzad in a manufactured controversy over Khalilzad sitting beside Iran's foreign minister at a World Economic Forum meeting captured in a YouTube clip.
America negotiated with Iran in stabilizing Afghanistan. America has negotiated with Iran in many different arenas. For one of John Bolton's White House pals to be pounding on Khalilzad for sitting next to Iran's Foreign Minister seems petty.
I have since learned from a source familiar with the Davos meeting that Khalilzad was originally not part of this Iran-focused World Economic Forum meeting and was added at the last moment by the session moderator. That may account for the lack of diplomatic management of panel seating.
Khalilzad's spokesman, Richard Grenell, is quick to point out that Khalilzad and Iran Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki didn't shake hands or meet separately. Grenell told Helene Cooper of the New York Times that Khalilzad was engaged in "just a multilateral conversation with the moderator."
Whatever the truth here, it does seem to me that Khalilzad is positioning himself as an engagement guy, though some close to him assure me that he is not working to undermine America's current "no high level diplomatic contact" posture toward Iran (though I wish he was).
One of the other oddities here is that Condoleezza Rice has not swatted Khalilzad for this seating arrangement/faux pas -- as she did Jay Lefkowitz recently for his comments about North Korea's nuclear program at an AEI event.
The engagers seem to be nudging forward as the pugnacious nationalists in the administration snipe -- but seriously, to go to the New York Times with a seating complaint is quite petty.
One wonders how long the Ambassador will stay in this administration. He seems to be better appreciated by the Davos crowd actually than his colleagues in the White House.
-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note