James F. Dobbins, an American diplomat whose career took him to Haiti, Afghanistan and many places in between, and who was both respected as a peace negotiator and widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on of nation-building, died Monday. in Washington. He was 81 years old.
His sons, Christian and Colin Dobbins, said he died in hospital of complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Until the 1990s, Mr Dobbins was best known for his role behind the scenes on some of the most sensitive transatlantic issues of the Cold War, including trade negotiations and the movement of nuclear weapons on the chessboard of Western Europe. .
His trajectory changed in 1993, when he was tasked with overseeing the US withdrawal from Somalia. Although he had no prior experience in the field or in Africa, he was later tasked with overseeing all peacekeeping matters at the State Department, including the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.
A stint as special envoy to Haiti followed, during the US intervention in 1994 and 1995. In the late 1990s, he was assigned to post-war Bosnia and Kosovo.
Each time, Mr. Dobbins deepened his experience of rebuilding war-torn societies, developing insight into a hugely complex foreign policy conundrum. He led the diplomatic component of NATO’s air campaign in Kosovo in 1999, then helped manage peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts there.
The United States had already rebuilt nations, including post-war 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 the main practitioner. He drew on America’s past experiences, but he also recognized that the difficulties the country faced at the turn of the millennium – simultaneously involving security, economic and political challenges – were different from those it faced. after the Second World War.
“He had an insatiable appetite for understanding concepts, theory at his fingertips,” Douglas Lute, the former US ambassador to NATO, said in a telephone interview. “And he paired that with a very honed instinct for how to actually do it on the pitch.”
He advised pragmatism, warning that there was no one-size-fits-all solution to every country’s problems. Yet he repeatedly stressed the need to establish security first, after which, he said, political and economic redevelopment could proceed safely.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Mr. Dobbins was chosen as an 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 United States Embassy, which had been closed in 1989.
“We are here, and we are here to stay,” he said.
Although he played this pivotal role, he went on to criticize the government’s efforts in Afghanistan and then in Iraq – particularly after his retirement in 2002, when he became director of the International Center for Security and Defense Policy in the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank. reservoir.
“His quality of analysis was not compromised by his personal involvement,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, director of the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs at Harvard. “He was able to separate his hopes from his analysis, which is something a lot of people in the arena struggle to do.”
A prolific author, Mr. Dobbins wrote a series of how-to guides to nation-building and then drew on those ideas in speeches, opinion pieces and lengthy essays to demonstrate that efforts in Afghanistan and in Iraq were insufficient.
“In a country like Iraq where the government structure has collapsed, the first priority is to establish public security,” he wrote in the New York Times in 2004. “The Pentagon has focused more on hardware than software, on improving infrastructure rather than social structures.”
Mr. Dobbins was never so well known to the public as he was to contemporaries like Richard C. Holbrooke or Zalmay Khalilzad, who also served as special representative in Afghanistan. But he was widely regarded as one of the finest foreign service officers of his generation.
“He was not the kind of person politically appointed by a friend of the president,” Robert B. Zoellick, a former undersecretary of state who got to know Mr. Dobbins in Europe, said over the phone. “Jim was the type of committed government official who is essential to America’s success and standing in the world.”
James Francis Dobbins Jr. was born on May 3, 1942 in Brooklyn. His father was a lawyer for the Veterans Administration; his mother, Agnes (Bent) Dobbins, was a homemaker.
When Jim was 10, he moved with his family to Manila, where his father had been transferred. This experience, which involved weeks of first-class travel by train and boat, left him with a love for life abroad.
He returned to Washington for his senior year of high school, then enrolled in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. During his last year there, in 1963, he passed the Foreign Service exam, but he had already enlisted in the Navy.
After graduating, he served for three years aboard the Bon Homme Richard, an aircraft carrier supporting America’s growing involvement in Vietnam. He was on duty during the critical moments of 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 release and was posted to Paris. During a party given by the Marine Detachment of the United States Embassy, he meets a Norwegian model, Toril Kleivdal. They married in 1968. She died in 2012.
Besides his sons, Mr. Dobbins is survived by his brothers, Peter and Andrew; his sisters, Victoria Dobbins and Elizabeth Fuller; and two grandchildren.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Dobbins held a number of diplomatic posts of increasing importance, including that of Ambassador to the European Community, the forerunner of the European Union.
His career was nearly 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 he had been “reckless” in his choice of words.
Mr Dobbins claimed the final report of the inquiry had been edited to please politicians. He appealed and in March 2001 received what he called “a significant financial settlement”.
The incident had no long-term impact on his career, although he believed it closed the possibility of being appointed to a confirmed Senate position.
After a decade at RAND, Mr. Dobbins returned to government service in 2013 as the United States Special Representative for Iraq and Pakistan.
“He is quite 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,” said then-Secretary John Kerry. state, when Mr. Dobbins resigned a year later.
He returned to RAND, where he continued to produce analysis and reports. He was still there a few weeks before his death, when, despite the advanced state of his illness, he was one of the authors of a report on the reconstruction of Ukraine.