James F. Dobbins: Diplomat Who Was a Leading Authority on Nation Building

From a New York Times obit by Clay Risen headlined “James F. Dobbins, Leading Authority on Nation Building, Dies at 81”:

James F. Dobbins, an American diplomat whose career took him to Haiti, Afghanistan and many points in between, and who was both respected as a peace negotiator and widely regarded as the world’s leading authority on nation building, died in Washington.

Until the 1990s, Mr. Dobbins was best known for his behind-the-scenes role in some of the Cold War’s most delicate trans-Atlantic issues, including trade negotiations and the movement of nuclear weapons around the chessboard of Western Europe.

His trajectory changed In 1993, when he was asked to oversee the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia. Though he had no previous experience in the field, or in Africa, he was later assigned to oversee all of the peacekeeping-related issues at the State Department, including the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

A stint as a special envoy in Haiti followed, during the U.S. intervention in 1994 and 1995. In the late 1990s, he was assigned to postwar Bosnia and Kosovo.

Each time, Mr. Dobbins deepened his experience with reconstructing war-torn societies, developing insight into an immensely complex foreign-policy conundrum. He managed the diplomatic side of the NATO air campaign in Kosovo in 1999 and then helped manage peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts there.

The United States had rebuilt nations before, notably postwar Germany and Japan. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the old world order, nation building moved to the top of the foreign-policy agenda.

Mr. Dobbins became its leading practitioner. He drew on America’s earlier experiences, but he also recognized that the difficulties the country faced at the turn of the millennium — involving security, economic and political challenges simultaneously — were different from those it faced after World War II.

“He had an insatiable appetite for understanding the concepts, the theory at hand,” Douglas Lute, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in a phone interview. “And he coupled that with a very sharp instinct for how to actually do it on the ground.”

He counseled pragmatism, warning that there was no single solution for every country’s problems. Still, he repeatedly emphasized the need to establish security first, after which, he said, political and economic redevelopment could flow safely.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Dobbins was selected as envoy to the anti-Taliban opposition, and then to the new government. On a rainy day in Kabul, in December 2001, he proudly presided over the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, which had been closed in 1989.

“We are here, and we are here to stay,” he said.

Despite playing that central role, he was later critical of the government’s efforts in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq — especially after he retired in 2002, when he became the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank.

“His quality of analysis was not compromised by his personal involvement,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, the director of the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs at Harvard. “He was able to distinguish his hopes from his analysis, which is something that many people in the arena struggle to do.”

A prolific author, Mr. Dobbins wrote a series of practical guides for nation building, then drew on those insights in speeches, opinion pieces and long essays to make the case that the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq were coming up short.

“In a country like Iraq where the governmental structure has collapsed, the first priority is to establish public security,” he wrote in The New York Times in 2004. “The Pentagon focused more on hardware than software, on improving infrastructure rather than social structures.”

Mr. Dobbins was never as well known among the public as contemporaries like Richard C. Holbrooke or Zalmay Khalilzad, who also served as special representatives to Afghanistan. But he was widely regarded as one of the best Foreign Service officers of his generation.

“He was not the sort of president’s friend’s political appointee,” Robert B. Zoellick, a former deputy secretary of state who got to know Mr. Dobbins in Europe, said by phone. “Jim was the type of committed government official that is critical for America’s success and standing in the world.”

James Francis Dobbins Jr. was born in Brooklyn. When he was 10, he moved with his family to Manila, where his father had been transferred. That experience, which involved weeks of first-class travel by train and ship, left him with a lifetime love for life abroad.

He returned to Washington for his senior year of high school, then enrolled at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. During his senior year there, in 1963, he passed the Foreign Service exam, but he had already enlisted in the Navy.

After graduation, he served for three years aboard the Bon Homme Richard, an aircraft carrier supporting America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam. He was on duty during critical moments in the clash with North Vietnamese forces near his ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, which effectively opened the Vietnam War.

Mr. Dobbins joined the Foreign Service after his discharge and was assigned to Paris. At a party given by the U.S. Embassy’s Marine detachment, he met a Norwegian model, Toril Kleivdal. They married in 1968. She died in 2012.

Through the 1970s and ’80s Mr. Dobbins held a number of diplomatic positions of increasing importance, including ambassador to the European Community, the forerunner of the European Union.

His career almost derailed in the late 1990s, when two members of Congress accused him of lying under oath while testifying about Haitian death squads. An internal investigation cleared him of lying, but concluded that he had been “reckless” in his choice of words.

Mr. Dobbins claimed that the investigation’s final report had been tweaked to please the politicians. He appealed, and in March 2001 received what he called “a sizable financial settlement.”

The incident had no long-term impact on his career, though he believed it closed off the possibility of being named to a Senate-confirmed position.
After a decade at RAND, Mr. Dobbins returned to government service in 2013 as the U.S. special representative for Iraq and Pakistan.

“He is simply one of the finest foreign service officers of his generation, a man who has dedicated his life to public service and earned respect throughout the region and in Washington,” John Kerry, then the secretary of state, said when Mr. Dobbins stepped down a year later.

He returned to RAND, where he continued to turn out analyses and reports. He was still at it a few weeks before his death, when, despite the advanced state of his disease, he was one of the authors of a report on rebuilding Ukraine.

Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “American Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Original Spirit.”

Also see the Washington Post obit by Brian Murphy headlined “James Dobbins, U.S. diplomat in global hot spots, dies at 81.” The opening grafs:

James Dobbins, a U.S. diplomatic troubleshooter whose assignments included reopening the embassy in Kabul after the 2001 invasion and then returning more than a decade later as a special envoy during a grinding war and fading hopes of stabilizing Afghanistan, died July 3 in Washington.

The death was announced by the Rand Corp., a think tank where Mr. Dobbins had previously led a center on international security and defense policy.

Mr. Dobbins’s résumé was a map of hot spots around the world over six decades, including a brief stint as acting U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan after the post-9/11 invasion and as a diplomatic liaison during military operations in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti in the 1990s.

He had a hand in some outcomes celebrated by the United States and its allies — notably in Kosovo, which achieved independence in 2008 after NATO-aided battles in the late 1990s against Serb-led nationalist forces. But Mr. Dobbins also watched significant crises and failures play out in other former postings.

Haiti has been locked in cycles of political chaos and gang-driven violence for decades. Somalia remains carved up into warlord-style fiefdoms, including areas controlled by Islamist militants.

Afghanistan was by far the biggest meltdown — and for years was the focus of Mr. Dobbins’s assertions that the United States and allies were getting it wrong.

“The truth is that the United States’ failure in Afghanistan was not preordained,” Mr. Dobbins wrote in Foreign Policy days after the final U.S. military pullout in August 2021 and the Taliban’s return to power, “but Washington severely hobbled its own stabilization efforts early on.”

In Mr. Dobbins’s view, U.S. policymakers made strategic blunders by focusing too many resources on counterinsurgency fights against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other militant groups. Instead, he said a better path was building local alliances and regional security networks to give Afghans a greater sense of safety and a stake in keeping the system in place.

“We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan,” Mr. Dobbins told the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in 2016, according to a transcript that was part of a trove of confidential U.S. documents on Afghanistan obtained by The Washington Post.

Mr. Dobbins straddled ideologies in Washington. He reflected interventionist instincts that the United States should be involved in “nation building” as “the inescapable responsibility of the world’s only superpower.” He also was a realist about America’s go-it-alone limits.

He advocated for international coalitions, local deal making and regional outreach — to friends as well as foes — as linchpins of attempts to move any country toward stability. “It is nearly impossible to put together a fragmented nation if its neighbors try to tear it apart,” Mr. Dobbins and his co-authors wrote in the 2003 book “America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq.”

With Afghanistan, Mr. Dobbins increasingly questioned U.S. objectives and priorities.

It began with optimism. On Dec. 16, 2001, he was acting U.S. ambassador as the Stars and Stripes — a flag left by a Marine guard in 1989 — was raised at the reopened embassy in Kabul. “We are here to stay,” Mr. Dobbins promised.

By 2014, as the Obama administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr. Dobbins was warning that factional rivalries and ongoing violence in Afghanistan could force the United States to one day pull back economic and military support.

“The consequences of this would be quite grave,” he told Afghanistan’s TOLOnews.

His prediction became a reality in August 2021 with the Taliban storming back to power after two decades of a U.S.-led war that killed more than 2,400 U.S. military personnel, more than 1,000 coalition troops and tens of thousands of Afghan security forces and civilians.

Mr. Dobbins, however, insisted this was the moment for renewed engagement in Afghanistan. Isolation, he told The Post, may seem more appealing to U.S. officials because it requires “no decisions, no resources and no political exposure.”

“But it never works,” Mr. Dobbins said. “In the history of foreign affairs, as far I know, it has never produced the desired results.”…

Speak Your Mind