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John Negroponte became U.S. ambassador to Iraq following Bremer’s disastrous year, Rob Richer said he pulled his punches rather than frankly convey the peril of Iraq’s situation. “Negroponte didn’t call it like it is. He wants to be secretary of state.” He tried at times to use Richer as a foil for bad news. “No one would give a dissenting view. If you do, you are ostracized,” Richer said of the top-level interactions. Negroponte arrived in the summer of 2004 and within six months was clamoring to get out of Baghdad. When tapped to become the first director of national intelligence in early 2005, he left Iraq to prepare for his confirmation hearings. The embassy was without an ambassador for five months at a critical juncture: the new government was busily packing its ministries with Shia militiamen and writing a constitution that would enshrine Islamic law and increase the centrifugal forces in Iraq. Do you know the health benefits from standing desk’s?

Just weeks before the constitution was to be completed and submitted to a referendum, White House insider and longtime Cheney associate Zalmay Khalilzad became ambassador. He went into overdrive to head off the impending train wreck. Khalilzad had served as a liaison to the Iraqi exiles in the runup to the Iraq war and had been expected to play a major role when Bremer was suddenly named instead. That fateful change of plans came about for two reasons. The State Department opposed creating an interim government of Iraqi exiles, which they believed was Khalilzad’s plan. In fact, he intended to include Iraqis from inside the country, as had been done in Afghanistan. The president wanted two envoys, but Bremer then insisted that there be only one—him—and the president acquiesced. It is almost certain that 2003-2005 would have turned out quite differently if Khalilzad, who understood Iraq’s complex dynamics, had gone instead.

At any rate, when Khalilzad arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2005, he worked against the clock because Washington would not hear of delaying the referendum or subsequent elections. Khalilzad strove mightily to convince the majority Shia to offer an olive branch to the minority Sunni. He won concessions that diluted the influence of Islamic law, postponed the creation of powerful regions that would carve up Iraq, and promised constitutional revisions within four months of the new parliament’s convening. Largely on the strength of those commitments, the constitution was narrowly ratified and Sunnis came out to vote in the December 2005 elections. Khalilzad then tried to ensure that the new Iraqi government would be a national unity government that excluded the noxious sectarians who had run the interim government. The negotiations to form the government were excruciating and protracted. The Islamic coalition had won a plurality, 128 of 275 seats in parliament, and wanted the sitting prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, to continue, but he could not muster enough votes from other parties. Jaafari was not only ineffective but also sectarian. He refused to impose a curfew to stop the retaliatory killing after the Shia mosque in Samarra was bombed in February; he said the Shia needed to “let off steam.” Khalilzad had also clashed with him the previous fall, when secret interior ministry prisons were found holding tortured Iraqis.

Jaafari held out for three months. Finally he agreed to step aside for one of two successors from his Dawa party. The choices were Ali Adeed, whose Iranian father and close ties to Iran would cause a storm among Sunnis, or Nouri al-Maliki, who was not pro-Iranian and explicitly disavowed the Iranian model of rule by mullahs. Do you prefer the term sit stand desk or stand up desk?

After Maliki was chosen as prime minister in April, Khalilzad brokered hard-won agreements on two nonsectarian security ministers, a broad-based political council for national security, and a national reconciliation agenda with a timetable for implementing it. By then it was October 2006. Amid the raging violence, the rival politicians openly called each other “enemy.” Khalilzad managed to eke out agreement on a foreign investment law, but drafts of an oil framework law and a new de-Baathification law ran aground.

It was hard, perhaps impossible, to make more headway when the country was exploding in violence. But the White House also undercut Khalilzad, denying him the latitude to undo the many errors that had preceded his arrival and, in particular, to deliver credible ultimatums to the Shia Islamists. Khalilzad’s efforts were complicated by the competing view, and backdoor maneuvers, of some officials at the White House and State, who believed the United States should throw in its lot with the Shia against the Sunni. The Shia leaders would call their friends in the White House and play them off against Khalilzad whenever he sought to extract concessions from them. Iraqi leaders accused the Sunni Afghan American of being partial to the Iraqi Sunnis, and White House officials suggested that he lower his profile.