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James Dobbins Recalls Life of Foreign Service, from Afghanistan to Vietnam

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When James Dobbins joined the Foreign Service in 1967, the Vietnam War was already in full swing. When he retired in 2014, nearly half a century later, U.S. troops were bogged down in Afghanistan. In between those two conflicts, Dobbins played a leading, if sometimes behind-the-scenes, role working to advance U.S. interests in some of the world’s nastiest trouble spots — from Haiti and Bosnia to Kosovo and Somalia.

Now Ambassador Dobbins has written a book about his fascinating life. “Foreign Service: Five Decades on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy” should be required reading for any aspiring diplomat.

On June 26, Dobbins’s publisher, the Brookings Institution, hosted the 75-year-old elder statesman to discuss his 336-page memoir with Peter Baker, White House correspondent for The New York Times.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in the Philippines, where his father was a top official with the postwar Veterans Administration, Dobbins spent much of his childhood in Manila in a luxurious house with a swimming pool, a tennis court and five servants. In late 1963, following his return to Washington, the young man became a naval officer.

a1.powi.dobbins.baker.story“Back then, the draft was in force, and most people assumed they’d go into the military. So I spent three and a half years in the Navy on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific,” he recalled. “There were two benefits to that: having that experience and bringing it to any number of subsequent diplomatic crises where civilian-military cooperation was important, and learning about the habit of command. I had people working for me when I was a very junior officer, and every one of them knew more about their job than I did.”

Besides treating subordinates with respect and getting good performance in return, Dobbins — who later in life served as U.S. ambassador to the European Union — offered three specific tips on how to make Washington work for you:

  • One of the most important jobs is that of note-taker, but don't record what was actually said. The joke is that you write a memorandum of a conversation so that it reads the way your boss would have liked it to read.
  • When traveling with your boss on business, never check your bag, especially if your boss doesn't.
  • Always accept diplomatic invitations, because if you don't go, they'll notice you weren't there.

“Partly there’s a degree of luck involved — being in the right place at the right time, and being noticed. My first assignment was Paris. This was just luck,” he said. “If you’re lucky and you’re good, you get noticed. As a junior officer, you’re largely an observer, a gopher and a facilitator, but you do have to demonstrate a command of the topics.”

Dobbins’s career spanned 10 presidencies, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, though he noted that, “the day I was sworn in as an officer in the Navy, Kennedy was assassinated, so our association was very brief. But as I progressed, I had more of an opportunity to size up these individuals” — as well as their secretaries of state.

While the “most consequential” secretary of state he served under was James Baker, whom Dobbins called “extraordinarily competent,” the most colorful was Henry Kissinger, the architect of foreign policy during the Nixon and Ford administrations.

“Kissinger was and remains a fascinating character. He was a bit of a monster and flew into rages, but he could also be very funny,” Dobbins recalled. “When I worked for him, Kissinger was both secretary of state and national security advisor. We had two forms of stationery, and they were always at loggerheads with each other.”

George Shultz, on the other hand, “kept his cards most closely to his chest. He was impressive, impassive and Buddha-like — and took a slight pleasure in discomforting briefers when they didn’t know their stuff.”

Baker, the journalist, asked Dobbins which president was best suited to foreign policy.

“George H.W. Bush was certainly the most prepared,” he replied, in a nod to the president who named him ambassador to the European Union (he served in Brussels from 1991 to 1993 in that capacity). “Bush had been director of the CIA, ambassador to China and vice president for eight years, and he was a warrior. This was a resume nobody else matched. He brought those talents to the presidency and the results are manifest. He’s the one I admire most.”

Yet the easiest, most pleasant president to work for was definitely Bill Clinton.

“Bill Clinton was so talented, he could take a speech and really make it sing. He listened to advice. There was a feeling that what you were doing was meaningful, because the president was actually listening and responding.”

Dobbins added: “Although he could be short-tempered with his immediate staff, he treated the rest of us as if we were major donors and he was running for a third term. He would always compliment me on my ties.”

Yet his favorite secretary of state wasn’t Hillary Clinton but Madeleine Albright, for having given Dobbins the most opportunities.

“Some secretaries of state want to leave behind a better State Department. She wanted to leave behind a better world — and the State Department would pretty much take care of itself,” Dobbins said of Albright, who oversaw NATO’s 1999 bombardment of Yugoslavia and stood up for Kosovo. “She herself told me at one point that she hadn’t connected as much as she wanted with the Foreign Service. I admire the tenacity with which she followed the Balkans. She was a woman in a man’s world. But instead of trying to act like a man, she used her femininity in an amusing and affectionate way to work with all of her male colleagues. She turned them into suitors.”

Yet by the end of the Cold War, Dobbins lamented that, “nation-building and peacekeeping had become a growth industry,” citing the Clinton-led invasion of Haiti and Bush-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. “And by flooding Bosnia and Kosovo with international manpower and assistance, we turned these two countries into permanent wards of the international community.”

Dobbins witnessed many of these conflicts firsthand — and managed the reconstruction efforts once the fighting stopped. He served as a troubleshooting envoy to Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and Somalia, where he oversaw the withdrawal of U.S. troops following the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush appointed Dobbins the administration’s representative to the opposition in Afghanistan, where he participated in the Bonn conference that saw the emergence of a new post-Taliban government.

a1.powi.dobbins.book.storyDobbins went to work for RAND Corp., but in May 2013, just as he was about to retire from the Foreign Service, Obama named him as his third special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, having succeeded Richard Holbrooke and Marc Grossman in that position.

Dobbins knew John Kerry as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and even testified before him several times.

“I was completely surprised when he called one morning and asked me to do the Af-Pak job,” Dobbins said. “He decided that the president was going to run foreign policy in Washington, and that his best option was to be away as much as possible and be the principal face of foreign policy abroad. But he knew the brief better than I did, so it was hard to brief him. He was impatient. He already knew whatever I was trying to tell him. We never really had detailed, substantive conversations about where we were going, partially because he had already been on the trail for a long time.”

Reflecting on Obama’s determination to wind down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Dobbins pointed out that Donald Trump is certainly not the first president who wanted to adopt an isolationist foreign policy, although he’s no fan of Trump cozying up to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and other questionable allies.

“In the ’70s, just as Nixon was beginning to withdraw from Vietnam, he declared what he called the ‘Nixon Doctrine.’ Jimmy Carter came into office as a pacifist, and Obama came into office promising to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and pivot to Asia, which was the most peaceful area of the world. None of that worked out,” he said.

“Obama learned that the Americans wanted a cheaper foreign policy, but didn’t like the reduced influence that resulted. So he was criticized when that influence was reduced. I don’t think Americans will be long content to see our country leading a coalition of oil-state monarchies and Third World bad guys, while the rest of the democratized, industrialized world marches to a different tune.”

During the Q&A, one member of the audience asked what insights President Trump might learn from his memoirs.

“If he read the book, maybe he’d relent on cutting the State Department’s budget by 30 percent,” Dobbins replied. “I think he’s so completely off the charts in terms of what has become acceptable, normal behavior by an American president. This is quite extraordinary. We’re in this situation where we now have two centers of foreign policy: President Trump and everybody else. Talk about polarization in Washington.”

It’s evident that Dobbins isn’t exactly a Trump fan. Asked to name the 45th president’s best decision since taking office, the retired statesman hesitated awhile.

“Allowing [Defense Secretary James] Mattis to set troop levels in Afghanistan was a little odd, but probably was a good decision. I don’t think Mattis is going to flood the country with U.S. troops.

“Also, his decision to give China another chance to change behavior on North Korea was the right one,” he added. “The president clearly has a different view, but he’s also rather careful on national security. He does tend to listen to advisors, and only goes off the charts occasionally. Mostly, the tweets are about domestic issues and trade. By and large, he’s approached national security issues more cautiously than other issues.”

Naming Trump’s worst decisions was much easier.

“The worst decision was abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have been good for the U.S. economically, and solidified America’s role in Asia,” he said. “But Hillary would have done that too, so I’d say leaving the Paris agreement [on climate change] was the worst decision.”

But foreign policy is full of bad decisions. Looking even further back, Dobbins said one of the biggest mistakes the United States made following the collapse of the Soviet Union was to allow the three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — to become full-fledged members of NATO. Taking a hard-nosed, realist view of the Baltics’ inclusion in the security bloc, Dobbins said the move, which infuriated Russia, has had serious repercussions that continue to plague the 29-member alliance to this day.

“The only country that was a serious threat to the U.S. was Russia,” said Dobbins. “Sweden, Austria and Finland had gotten through the Cold War just fine. Unfortunately, the price of bringing in countries that were in conflict was that you had to get the Baltic states in, too. And that was a bridge too far, because they weren’t part of the Warsaw Pact but part of the Soviet Union. I’m not suggesting we should have sold them down the river, but they could have persisted like Finland as independent, democratic states.”

The purpose for Washington to have allies is to make the United States safer, but geography prevents Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from contributing to U.S. security.

“The fact they are effectively surrounded by Russia makes them effectively indefensible. Almost no amount of force could prevent the Russians from taking them, if they were foolish enough to try,” he said, adding that, “bringing them into the alliance and formally moving the alliance onto the border of the former Soviet Union was almost necessarily going to be provocative and costly as a result.”

But that doesn’t mean Washington should go easy on Moscow’s own various provocations. Dobbins urged Trump to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin on his country’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections.

“Until Trump establishes his credibility on that issue, he’s going to be completely impotent in regards to Russia policy, as indicated by the 98-2 vote on sanctions,” Dobbins warned, referring to the Senate bill to impose additional sanctions on Russia and handcuff the president’s ability to curtail those sanctions without congressional approval. “This is the first time almost ever that sanctions have been passed in a way that the president can’t waive them. It’s unprecedented in the degree to which it limits the president’s capacity to use and manipulate sanctions in a way to achieve objectives.”

Before the Brookings event wrapped up, it was almost inevitable that someone in the audience would ask Dobbins the proverbial question: What keeps you up at night?

“North Korea,” he replied without hesitation. “It has nuclear weapons and is developing ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles]. The Trump administration has said it’ll take military action to prevent that if necessary. At best, such military action against North Korea would involve several million South Koreans getting killed — and it could be worse than that.”


About the Author

Larry Luxner is the Tel Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on August 1, 2017