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Conference Call with James Dobbins

Speaker: James Dobbins, Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand
Presider: Gideon Rose, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
September 10, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations


Council on Foreign Relations

September 10, 2007

GIDEON ROSE:  Hi, everybody.  Welcome to another one of the Foreign Affairs Conference Calls.  Gideon Rose, Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs.  We are very lucky to have with us today Jim Dobbins, who is currently the Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand, formerly an Assistant Secretary of State under both Clinton and Bush Senior, and with Clinton administration, Special Envoy to Bosnia , Haiti , Kosovo , Somalia , Mars, and other places.  And the Bush administration’s first Envoy to Afghanistan .  Basically, if you all remember Annie Hall, it’s like when you get to bring Marshall McLuhan on stage and say, here’s what we should’ve done about nation building, and you have the actual authority with you.  So let’s get right to the questions. 

            Jim, you have an article in Foreign Affairs, the new issue, Who Lost Iraq: Lessons from the Debacle.  Before we get into it, let me first question you on the title.  Is it, there are people now saying with the Petraeus report that it’s too soon even to talk about having lost Iraq .  Why do you start from the premise that this is a major failure?

JIM DOBBINS:  Well, of course the title is a play on the lost China debate, and who lost Vietnam debate and is designed to get people to read the article.  I think almost everybody would recognize that in terms of its original intent, the effort has proved a failure.  That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing that can be retrieved or that the United States ought to conclude that its current efforts are completely worthless and cease them, but it does mean that, as I think most people would accept, that the war turned out to (a), have been unnecessary, and (b), the occupation turns out to have been exceptionally poorly conducted.  And the article is about why and what we can learn from that. 

GIDEON ROSE:  Okay.  So what are the most important or the most major mistakes that were made, and why did they occur?

JIM DOBBINS:  I think that the most important fault was the lack of a methodical process in policy making that would’ve thrown out the alternatives, the costs, and the possible down sides of choices as they were made.  I cite some of them in the article.  More recently there’s been an exchange between George Bush and Gary Bremer in effect on whether or not the president was informed about the intention to disband the army.  And I think this just is again an example of the lack of a policy process that subjected that particular option to close scrutiny, engaged everybody with an opinion, and with a legitimate need to have that opinion considered in a debate, and made the decision as the result of a process which nobody could subsequently claim didn’t take place.

GIDEON ROSE:  What would you say to the argument that presidents get the decision making processes they want, and that what was at issue here wasn’t really a process question, but that the process they had was set up precisely because there were powers that be in the White House or in the vice president’s office, or whatever, that didn’t want the normal procedures of deliberation and consensus to go forward because they knew all along what they wanted and they just wanted to do it?

JIM DOBBINS:  I think that’s absolutely right.  I think the president did get the policy process that he wanted.  It’s one of the reasons that I didn’t go after Condaleeza Rice particularly for this failure because I think she was running a process which the president and the vice president were comfortable with, and I think there was a similar lack of process in the Pentagon.  I think that both the president and the secretary of defense did not appreciate the importance of structured debate and disciplined dissent in making wise decisions at those levels of governance.  And short circuiting the process, as was done apparently regularly, and in which apparently the vice president was also involved, denied them access to information, to options, to considered opinions that would’ve enriched their, would’ve enriched their decision making considerably.  

GIDEON ROSE:  If there had been the structured debate that you would’ve liked to have seen, expected to have seen, given your experience in these matters of high levels over the years, what would that structured debate have thrown up and how would things have been different?

JIM DOBBINS:  Well, I think that first of all, it would’ve thrown up the something approaching the likely real costs of occupying and reconstructing Iraq at an early date, and therefore would’ve made the decision as to whether this intervention was indeed worthwhile, even assuming that the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was accurate, into higher relief.  I think that as the early decisions were made throughout the occupation it would’ve also allowed policy choices from a wider range of options.  Again, going back to this classic disbanding the Iraqi army, it may well have been that disbanding the Iraqi army was the right thing to do given the fact that it largely disbanded itself at that point.  But a more methodical effort to address the options probably would have, (a), postponed the decision, and there didn’t seem to be any great urgency since the Iraqi army disbanded itself.  Secondly, it would’ve thrown up the precedents of other efforts at disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of armed forces in a dozen different nation-building operations over the last 15 years.  And the pattern which had been developed, and the methodologies that had been developed for doing this, which essentially involved registering everybody in the former army, getting their names and addresses, the curriculum vitae, giving them a monthly stipend while you decide what to do with them, and then progressively over time either channeling them back into an army or channeling them into some other form of livelihood with appropriate vocational training, all the time continuing to give them a monthly stipend so that they are not thrown out on the street.  You know where they are, you know what they’re doing, you know who they are, and gradually they’re reabsorbed by the society.  This is classic, it’s been done a dozen times.  And in Iraq , a group of people who made this decision were simply oblivious to this record. 

GIDEON ROSE:  Now you were doing these things in this administration in Afghanistan .  Was there a different set of procedures that applied to Iraq from those that had applied in Afghanistan ?

JIM DOBBINS:  I think that there were a number of mistakes in Afghanistan .  They were largely sins of omission rather than commission since we chose not to occupy the country and since the diplomacy that lead to the emergence of the Karzai government was fairly successful and was conducted quite inclusively.  I think Iraq , Afghanistan was in many ways a pernicious example for the administration.  It was so easy, it was so quick that it first of all led to a false sense of confidence; hey if we can do this in Afghanistan , why can’t we do it in Iraq ?  Secondly, I think that in the aftermath of 9/11 there was a perceived need for recompense, retribution, and Afghanistan wasn’t enough.  It was just too easy and so Iraq was next.  And then, of course, Iraq began to suck air out of the effort in Afghanistan , not only diverting resources, but high level attention for several years.  So the two, the two interventions had very negative effects on each other.  And in this respect it’s interesting to think back to the Clinton administration’s first experience, which was Somalia , a debacle from which they learned that they really had to be careful, that they really weren’t masters of the universe.  The secretary of defense lost his job, the White House chief of staff lost his job, everyone else’s job was hanging by a thread, and they became much more cautious.  Afghanistan had exactly the opposite effect on the people, on the president and his top advisors. 

GIDEON ROSE:  Let me press you on a couple things.  You said about cost, there were people, Lawrence Lindsey who gave out rather high figures, couple hundred million, even though that’s been less than what played out, but a very high amount.  And then there were people like Woolf Wood and Randy Tobias, the USAID who gave low ball figures.  And from the outside watching this, it seemed to me that there were people who knew what the real costs were, but they didn’t want to talk about them in public because they didn’t want to sell the war as an expensive proposition.  Are you saying that they actually believed it would be cheap, or that they didn’t want to talk about the figures in advance?

JIM DOBBINS:  You know, I mean there’s two hypotheses when statements turn out to be untrue.  You know, one is that the leaders intentionally deceived us.  The alternative is that first they deceived themselves and then they deceived us.  I tend to be more charitable and believe that first they deceived themselves and then they deceived us.  I think that’s true both of weapons of mass destruction and the cost of the war.  That is to say they actually believed what they were saying, but it was a form of wishful thinking.  And that kind of wishful thinking can exist as long as it’s not subject to a process of a criticism and, you know, disciplined adversarial debate in which people who don’t want to invade Iraq have an opportunity to explain why it’s going to be more expensive, and why it’s less likely to be successful, and so not giving those voices within the administration that opportunity meant that this kind of wishful thinking could flourish.

GIDEON ROSE:  Let me press you on one thing.  I can’t think of more than a handful of people in the entire professional national security establishment who really thought there was really much of a connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda, or even entertained seriously the idea that Saddam was behind 9/11 and that the connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda and the war on terror were bruited about pretty heavily by this administration.  Do you think that was a case in which they actually believed it, or were they being cynically sort of using 9/11 as a general sort of backdrop for what they were doing without actually believing a connection?

JIM DOBBINS:  Well, the more or less respectable argument that linked Iraq to 9/11 was that 9/11 demonstrated that there were people who would go to any length to damage the United States .  That intelligence suggested that these people were also seeking access to weapons of mass destruction, and that if they secured that access they would use the; that all is probably true.  The second level was, you know, there are rogue states around the world who have weapons of mass destruction, who exhibited irresponsible behavior in the past, and who might under some circumstances collude with these terrorist groups to give them that access.  That was certainly a more debatable point, but one that you couldn’t entirely dismiss, and then that lead you to the axis of evil.  Of the three, Saddam was certainly not the most dangerous, but he was the most vulnerable and if you wanted to make an example of somebody he was probably the easiest one to make an example of.  I think that was the logic chain which had some integrity to it that the people in the administration did believe in.  I think most of them, with the exception perhaps of some of the Defense Department, didn’t buy the argument that there was a direct link to al-Qaeda or a responsibility for 9/11.

GIDEON ROSE:  Let’s say that they make a decision to go for war and they recognize that having done so it needs to be handled appropriately with the post-war reconstruction and occupation and so forth handled well.  And they say, okay, Jim Dobbins, you’re an expert on this, you’ve done this, you know how it should be done, you’ve studied it.  We’re making you the post-war czar giving you full resources and authority to help run it properly.  If all best practices had been followed, if the original (inaudible) of the invasion had gone, had taken place but after that best practices had been followed, could this have worked?

JIM DOBBINS:  I think the results would have been better.  I think that a full success in Iraq was implausible at any cost with the American public was likely to be willing to pay.

GIDEON ROSE:  Full success defined how?

JIM DOBBINS:  Full success is defined as the administration originally defined it, you know.  A functioning moderate democracy, a unified country aligned with the United States acting as a positive model and incentive for change in the region.  But I mean the main prerequisites for success in an operation of this sort are, first of all, some degree of regional cohesion and support around the project; secondly, an adequate level of resources; and thirdly, a realistic set of objectives that match to that level of resources. 

            If you’d wanted to approach the project in Iraq, assuming for the sake of argument that you’d already invaded, that you were past that threshold and that you’d invaded without a Security Council resolution, I think there was still a moment at that point where American prestige was very high, the war had gone very quickly, everybody assumed there would be weapons of mass destruction that would be found.  If the United States at that point had transitioned very quickly to an okay, we’ve overthrown Saddam, but we want to share responsibility for Iraq’s, the future oversight governance and development with the international community as a whole; if it had tried to do what it had done in Afghanistan, which is involve the United Nations, and in particular involve the neighboring states in trying to define a project for Iraq, and if it had been prepared at the same time to deploy the level of resources necessary to stabilize the country and begin a process of reconstruction, I think there might have been some success.  The administration clearly wasn’t prepared to do that. 

            I mean, you know, we didn’t go into Afghanistan saying we were going to make it a model for central Asia , the objective of which was to undermine the legitimacy of every neighboring state and ultimately lead to changes in their form of government.  That was the declared objective of our mission in Iraq and it was a declared objective that automatically precluded cooperation with the neighboring states.  And if there’s one thing we learned about nation building from Bosnia to Afghanistan to Iraq is that if the neighbors don’t want you to stabilize that country you’re not going to, no matter how hard you try. 

GIDEON ROSE:  What you just said is the highest level of professional and common sense and general expert wisdom on the subject.  How could the United States have deviated so much from standard issue best practices in the field?

JIM DOBBINS:  I think you have to remember back to how controversial the whole nation-building project became in the ‘90s.  And it became so controversial because of this great boom in missions.  I mean for the 45 years of the Cold War the United States intervened in a new country on an average of about once every 10 years.  In the ‘90s it was suddenly once every two years, so it was Kuwait , Somalia , Haiti , Bosnia , Kosovo, and finally Afghanistan , a little more than a decade.  The UN, which had previously mounted a new international intervention on the average of once every four years, has, since 1989, mounted a new one every six months.  This became oppressively expensive, and for the first few years of the ‘90s we did them exceptionally poorly.  You had (inaudible), you had Rwanda , you had Somalia .  And so the general view was that this was a failed enterprise and that it was an unacceptable burden.  And so the current administration ran, one of the central planks of its foreign policy platform was no more nation building.  And then suddenly it found that it had taken on two nation-building operations, both of which were 10 times bigger than any of the ones the Clinton administration had taken on.  Well it simply wasn’t prepared to go back and look at those, look at those experiences with an open mind and adopt and adapt techniques that had been developed in that decade.  Instead, it wanted to go back and look at what Douglas McArthur had done.  And the problem was that the lessons of the 1940s weren’t nearly as applicable as the lessons of the 1990s when it came to Iraq in 2003.

GIDEON ROSE:  There’s so many questions for us to talk about.  People on the call should know that Jim is heading up a wonderful project at Rand now with the Coalition Provisional Authority and its papers.  So he’s really the guy you want to talk to about what’s happened and how it could’ve been done differently or not.  But I’m just going to ask one more question before turning it over to our audience because I know they’re champing at the bit.  My question to you is, sum up the lessons very briefly.  What is the take away from this whole experience?

JIM DOBBINS:  Well, the main lessons of sort of nation building looked at over the last 15 years are, first of all, that you need to, that there’s, you have to establish a relationship between the scale of your ambitions and the size of your commitment.  Secondly, you need to secure the, not just the passive acquiescence, but the active cooperation of neighboring states.  And thirdly, that there’s an – tends to be an inverse relationship between the size of the force you commit and the number of casualties it suffers, and incidentally the number of casualties it inflicts.  So those are some of the broad lessons. 

            Now, in terms of the lesson for Iraq itself, I think the most important lesson is the one that I originally outlined, which is the need for a policy process that uses, you know, the dialect of structured debate and disciplined defense to inform presidential decisions to make sure all options are considered, all downsides are addressed, and all stakeholders are brought into the process before important decisions like those of war and peace are made. 

I think there are more specifically as you get to the occupation, the fact that this isn’t the first time that we’ve done something like this.  In fact, it’s the seventh time in a little more than a decade that we’ve liberated a country and then tried to reconstruct it.  And we need to get more professional with this kind of thing.  We need to develop an ongoing doctrine.  We need to create a cadre of people who know how to do these kinds of things, because while Iraq was a war of choice, and the choice was a poor one, Afghanistan isn’t, and there’s a dozen other places around the world where the international community is trying to reconstruct failed states.  And this is a project that we simply can’t afford to turn our back on.

GIDEON ROSE:  Okay.  With that, let’s turn it over to our listeners; fire away at Jim Dobbins. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  At this time we will open the floor for questions.  If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the one key on your touchtone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.  If at any time you would like to remove yourself from questioning cues, press star, two.  

            Our first question comes from Susan Page with USA Today. 

SUSAN PAGE:   (Inaudible) Dobbins, you talked a lot about how we got where we are in Iraq , and I wonder if you’d talk for a minute about where we’re going.  We have this hearing today and tomorrow, it’s got so much attention, with the testimony from General Petraeus and Investor Crocker.  Does this seem to you like a turning point or a hinge?  What do you think the significance of this testimony is likely to be when we look at the US course in Iraq ahead?

JIM DOBBINS:  Well, I don’t think it’ll be a turning point unless the Congress makes it one.  It looks like the basic message that Crocker and Petraeus is going to give us is we need more time.  On the other hand, the realities of the size and structure of our armed forces means that there probably is going to begin to be a draw down by early next year, at least back to pre-surge levels. 

            I think my concern about these particular hearings, and this goes back to my own background and what I’ve been saying earlier, is the man who isn’t there or the woman who isn’t there.  Iraq isn’t going to be stabilized except in the context of a regional arrangement which brings all of its neighbors into a common project.  And neither Iraq and neither Petraeus nor Crocker had any responsibilities for relations with any of the neighboring states.  Crocker’s talking with the Iranians, but he has no responsibility for relations with Iran and is unable to engage them on any issue having to do with US-Iranian relations.  So we’re continuing to treat Iraq as if it’s on the moon.  And I think that, therefore, we’re going to continue to face considerable difficulties there. 

I think the military have adopted the right to, belatedly have adopted the right metric, which is how many civilians are getting killed.  This is a metric we should’ve embraced four years ago.  I think they’re employing the right tactics, traditional, textbook counter-insurgency tactics but I think the best they’re going to be able to do is hold the line.  And as long as the United States and Iran regard Iraq as a zero sum contest for national influence, Iraq ’s going to remain in turmoil, and the United States is going to remain bogged down. 

SUSAN PAGE:  Well if that’s the situation, are we basically in a state where this can just get kicked down the road for the next president to resolve exactly what happens there?

JIM DOBBINS:  I think the, I think if the surge has had any effect, it probably will result in the situation as it existed when the Iraq Study Group gave it’s support in December of 2006 being essentially the same situation that exists in November of 2008. 

SUSAN PAGE:  Thanks very much. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from James Kitfield with National Journal Magazine.

JAMES KITFIELD:  (Inaudible) just to pick up a little bit more on that subject of the political reconciliation.  We’ve seen that, as you said, the surge has had some tactical military successes, but it seems to achieve very little from the political reconciliation at the central government level.  We’re told by the military that that’s okay; we’re going to do this from the bottom up, build the regions up, local governance at the region and provincial level.  Eventually we’ll tie that to the national government.  Is that a workable solution to you?  It sounds like a long hard slog to me. 

JIM DOBBINS:  It may be, but it may be a formula for a more formal, a more structured and a more violent civil war.  Essentially the United States is now arming all three sides in a contest for power at the national level.  And at some point, if it’s not successful in tying the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunnis into some reconciled national whole, it will simply have fueled and created the conditions for a much more violent civil war; a civil war in which all sides have access to heavy weaponry, and which all sides can contest, hold and take territory, and in which they fight for control over key areas of thick settlement or of great economic importance. 

JAMES KITFIELD:  Thank you. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Steve Clemons with The Washington Note.  

STEVE CLEMONS:  Jim, thank you very much for your rundown of how things are.  You mentioned Iran .  I’m interested in how you see another regional stakeholder, Saudi Arabia . And whether or not, given what a mess things are today, and not necessarily assigning blame on why that’s the case, is there something to be said geo-strategically in the region of actually trying to help cultivate some sort of broad standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia , even in Iraq ?  I mean, to try to establish a new equilibrium of sorts, or is that just a very, very dice – what would your response be to that?  Where do you fit the Saudis in this equation?

JIM DOBBINS:  Well, I think the Saudis have to be part of any solution.  I’m not sure I would, I’m not sure the ideal is a standoff as much as a process of mutual accommodation.  I think simply dividing Iraq between an area that’s under Sunni influence and supported by Saudi Arabia, and another area that’s under Shia influence and supported by Iran is a formula, as I suggested, for not just for division into three states, but division into three warring states as they compete, as they contest mixed areas like Baghdad and economically important areas that are on the boundaries of these ethnic communities, as is for instance in Kirkuk.  So the subdividing, further subdividing Iraq may well be where things go, and those who advocate what’s called soft partition, you know, as an analytical matter, are on fairly sound ground.  I mean clearly Iraq is disintegrating.  Clearly there is a process of devolution underway.  But whether this is something the United States should be accelerating or retarding is the question I pose.  I believe that we should be trying to retard it rather than to accelerate it.

STEVE CLEMONS:  Thank you. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Chandradant Pancholi with Overseas India Weekly. 

CHANDRADANT PANCHOLI:  Hi.  I’m Chandradant Pancholi.  Let’s pick up Iran again.  Would you think that Iran will pick up southern Iraq by proxy at first, and then actually take over?  And why we shouldn’t be worried Iran, Iraq in three parts, one half of the part facing Iraq be given to Sunnis, facing Iran should be given to Sunnis, and the other half part should be given to Shias who will be facing Saudi Arabia, and the upper  northern part to Kurds?  And have some arrangement for oil revenue distribution, and there we can have an international body dividing and giving the oil revenue?

JIM DOBBINS:  I don’t think Iran has any interest in actually occupying or governing Iraq or any part of Iraq .  I don’t think it has any territorial aspirations in that regard and I think it’s unlikely that the Iranian (inaudible) will be drawn into over occupation of all or part of Iraq .  I think the Iranians are inevitably going to have a high degree of influence.  They’re going to be the most influential of Iraq ’s neighbors, and that’s inevitable.  The question is whether that influence can be accommodated within the framework of a genuinely independent Iraq , and one that also is acceptable to the other neighbors, and that at the moment is far from certain. 

            I don’t favor large-scale population transfers, which appears to be what you’re suggesting.  And I think, and while I think that the continued disintegration of Iraq and the possibility that Iraq will not remain a unified state is quite high, I don’t believe it’s in the interest of any of Iraq’s neighbors that it move in that direction, and I think the United States, as I suggested, should be trying to retard rather than accelerate such a process. 

CHANDRADANT PANCHOLI:  Just to follow-up one second.  You said the Shia connection, very strong religious connection, very strong with Iran , and the oil revenue that Iran will get, and why they wouldn’t try to take over the southern part of Iran again?  Because this is the same population following the same strong religious ties, which are opposed to Sunni ties.  

JIM DOBBINS:  Well, I think they wouldn’t wish to do so first of all, because they’re Arabs, they’re not Persians, and they would resist any such incorporation.  Iran already has very large ethnic and linguistic minorities, and if they took over the Shia parts of Iraq , the Persian speaking Iranian population would be a minority in their own country.

CHANDRADANT PANCHOLI:  Thank you so much. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Greg Bruno with CFR. 

GREG BRUNO:  Yeah, hi, Ambassador.


GREG BRUNO:  Yeah, hi, thanks.  I’m with the Council on Foreign Relations website.  Quick question: trying to get a sense of what the actual situation is on the ground.  Some have accused the military of cherry picking data on security, specifically in regard to the civilian deaths.  And I wonder what your thoughts are on the data that we see coming out of Iraq , and how much we can actually trust, and what we should be trusting. 

JIM DOBBINS:  Well I think, as I think I said we’re finally counting the right thing, which is how many Iraqis are getting killed.  This is the fundamental metric of any counterinsurgency campaign.  And it’s one that the Pentagon evaded for the first several years where there was a conscious decision not to count, not to keep track of, not to have any way of tracking civilian casualties.  Now, whether we’re counting them properly?  No.  I mean, there’s always, there’s the famous statement, there’s lies, lies and statistics.  One can prove anything with statistics.  I think what’s important, and what the Congress and the others ought to be requiring is some degree of transparency in how these statistics are arrived at, and the capacity of critics to use the same data to come to different conclusions if they choose to.  But I am pleased that we’re finally counting the right thing.  And to the extent we don’t have adequate access to the raw data from which these statistics are derived, then I would hope that the Congress would be demanding that data and perhaps using other institutions like the Government Accounting Office or others if it questions the administration’s use of these statistics to go over them and come out with their own judgments.

GREG BRUNO:  Great, thanks. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  There are no more questions at this time. 

GIDEON ROSE:  Let me jump in here with one for you, Jim.  What, you talked before about the structured decision making process that should’ve taken place within Iraq and the lack of which helped facilitate many of the problems that occurred.  We talked about Iran .  There are reports of varying degrees of validity that the administration had contemplated various types of military action against Iran .  Do you have any sense that this particular administration has learned from what’s happened in Iraq , and is approaching future military interventions with the sort of attitude that you would’ve liked to see them approach Iraq ?

JIM DOBBINS:  Well, in the article I was critical of both the president and the secretary of defense.  The secretary of defense has been changed.  I think Gates, who ran along with (inaudible) the interagency process throughout the older Bush administration has a strong sense of how a well-functioning system works, and how it assists a president in making wise decisions, and my guess is that he at least would resist a less formal approach to the decision-making.  It’s striking that in an interview with Bob Woodward, Rumsfeld admitted that the president had never asked him whether he thought it was a good idea to invade Iraq , which is pretty remarkable.  I think Gates at least would require a more methodical process. 

            Whether the president has learned, I just don’t know.  I think there has been an effort to put the National Security Council more centrally into the policy coordination process in the second term.  The recent search for a czar for the war, and the selection of General Lute again suggests a greater sensitivity to the need for a process.  Whether this would be applied in terms of a possible military action against Iran , I just don’t know.  It’s quite possible the administration or the president might feel that the need for secrecy in that regard preclude a rigorous examination.  That clearly wasn’t the case with respect to Iraq .  There was no need for secrecy and there was no such excuse.  With respect to Iran , it’s not impossible. 

GIDEON ROSE:  So you actually can imagine a military strike on Iran that comes almost out of the blue?

JIM DOBBINS:  I don’t want to predict it. I think it’s unlikely given our other commitments, and given Congressional and public attitude.  I’ve always said that the horror scenario is that the United States is forced to leave Iraq in defeat and humiliation and bombs Iran on the way out just to demonstrate that it shouldn’t be trifled with to change the subject and to reassert itself.  I don’t think that’s a likely scenario.  But it’s one that’s scary enough so that we probably shouldn’t dismiss it entirely. 

GIDEON ROSE:  If we have any, do we have any more questions in the queue right now?

OPERATOR:  No sir, we do not.

GIDEON ROSE:  Okay.  Try and pull from out of the queue; one more for you, Jim, from me. You were working these issues inside the system for many years under many masters in many regions with extraordinary professional success.  You’ve come out, and you’re now at Rand , and you’ve been following these issues and working them as a civilian think tank analyst.  How does the view differ?  And do you think about these sorts of questions now differently than you did when you were in the system?

JIM DOBBINS:  Well, I’ve discovered that it’s far easier to criticize my successors than it ever was to achieve anything in government.  And I do still have some appreciation for how difficult it is to get anything done within government.  And when I advocated disciplined debate and structured dissent, I also remember how painful it was to have to go through those kinds of debates endlessly to examine the same subject, to engage in the same arguments with the same people.  So there is a cost, and this is not easy.  I don’t, I mean obviously I’ve reflected on this for five years.  I’ve written three books on the subject.  And I’ve ordered my thoughts and developed theories that were at best insipient when I left government.  I mean I wrote and we published this year something called The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building, the original of which was Nation-Building for Dummies, and then some people suggested that the administration would take that personally, so we changed it to the slightly more anodyne title.  I really wish that was the book that I’d given Bremer in 2003, rather than the book that I did give him, which was called America’s Role in Nation-Building, and which had many of these lessons put in a less fully developed form.  And if those, I wish I’d been able to articulate as well as I can today the kinds of rules of thumb and best practices that the subsequent years of reflection have allowed me to do now rather glibly. 

GIDEON ROSE:  Let me give you one last question on this stuff, which is you were working in the system under George H.W., right? 


GIDEON ROSE:  Professionals look back to those years as a time of serious adult supervision and so forth, and one in which there was serious debate over foreign policy inside and outside.  And in varying ways, both of the successor administrations seem to have gotten tangled in very intense partisan politics and foreign policy discussion.  It seems to have been reduced to a subset of the political battles going on outside the administration.  Do you think it’s possible to re-establish some kind of professional discourse in which serious discussion takes place without the charges of either traitor, or stab in the back, or, you know, chicken-hawk-ness or whatever, as we go forward?  Can we get over the fights that have bedeviled national security discussions in and outside government in the last 16 years?

JIM DOBBINS:  I think so but it’s not going to be easy.  I think that the foreign policy debate definitely became more polarized in the ‘90s.  Partially because of the, you know, the absence of an overwhelming threat to force some kind of national consensus of the sort we had in World War II and of the sort that we had during the Cold War.  You know, there’s a story that the reason that academic discourse is so divisive is that the stakes are so low.  That’s a Henry Kissinger quote.  And in a sense, the ‘90s were a bit that.  The stakes were low and one could afford a great deal of dissention.  And although there’s a lot of rhetoric about now being engaged in a great new war that may last generations between two civilizations, or at least two ideologies, and that this is somehow a replay of the Cold War.  I don’t think most Americans buy that, and therefore there’s still, I think, perhaps more scope for the kind of political gamesmanship that we saw a lot of in the ‘90s. 

We also in the aftermath of the Cold War began to perceive that foreign policy credentials weren’t all that important in our national leaders.  And so rather than George H.W. Bush had been not only vice president, but head of the CIA, and ambassador of China, we began electing people with pretty thin foreign policy credentials and that also played a role.  And it’s possible that the debacle in Iraq will lead to some reconsideration of that, and it’s likely that in the upcoming election the voters will be more likely to look at the likely performance of whomever they’re considering in the foreign security policy arena than was the case in 2000 when they elected George W. Bush. 

GIDEON ROSE:  I’ll leave that one untouched where it goes because different people would answer that in different ways, the implication of that.  I’ll leave that to people’s own preferences.  Is there any further questions?  If not, Jim, do you have any final words?

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir, we have.


OPERATOR:  Steven Clemons with the Washington Note. 

STEVE CLEMONS:  Jim, I have just two quick things, just on the record given; I mean, on your comments on the sort of historical record.  You know, in late April, mid to late April of 2003 you were involved in helping to orchestrate the meetings between Zalmay Khalilzad, as I understand it, and Ambassador Zarif about a possible Bonn conference-like approach to Iraq, and on May 12th of 2003 you had the Riyadh bombing, which at one level were, I think that some were blaming them on Iran, later al-Qaeda.  And I’m wondering what you think about the failure to go back to Iran , given the progress you had helped engineer that no one came back and re-instituted that process and why that might have been. 

            And then secondly, Xao (sp?) wrote a national interest piece on sort of 10 lessons learned in nation-building, and it was really looking at Afghanistan .  And it was almost as if you look at those 10 lessons learned, or you know, 10 lessons he thought were important and looked at his experience as ambassador in Iraq that the administration wasn’t even letting him do many of those things.  And I’m wondering if you have any reflections on when how he looked at the nation-building exercise, and why in the role that he had he was unable to do much of what he’d done in Afghanistan if you think he did accomplish something along those lines on the Iraq side of this. 

JIM DOBBINS:  Well, on the issue of Iran, it’s clear that in, that the Khatami regime in Iran, which had originally not responded to Clinton administration overtures to improve relations, made substantial gestures toward reconciliation with the United States in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and then again in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.  In both cases this was a mixture of probably fear and perceived advantage.  That is to say in both there was a shared US and Iranian interest in toppling the Taliban and Saddam.  But in both cases Iran was also fearful that they could be the next in line, and that a powerful and successful United States with troops poised first on their eastern border and then on their western border could become a more serious threat.  And so in 2001 they collaborated quite actively with me in setting up the Karzai government, and was quite helpful at the Bonn conference and afterwards.  And then even after the axis of evil speech and the administration’s very negative and threatening statements, they nevertheless continued to proffer proposals of expanded assistance, including discussions on the full range of issues in the relationship and more substantial Iranian commitments to stabilize Afghanistan .  The administration chose not to follow-up those offers.             

            Then a year later exactly the same thing happened.  We invaded Iraq , the Iranians became, on the one hand overjoyed because Saddam had been overthrown, and on the other hand fearful that they’d be next.  And again they made proposals to Washington to address the full range of issues on the US-Iranian agenda, and sent a note which indicated that they were prepared to make considerable concessions on all of those points.  Again the administration was so confident that it was dealing with Iran, or not dealing with Iran, from a position of strength and confident that it could get a better deal if it simply waited and consolidated its positions in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it chose not to follow-up those, either of those 2001 or the 2003 offers. 

            Now, as we know, in the intervening four years the Iranian position has both hardened and strengthened.  It’s hardened in the sense that they’re no longer making these offers and they’re no longer prepared to make the concessions they offered.  And it’s strengthened in that their position is much stronger than it was.  Our position, conversely, has hardened and weakened.  That is, we are even less willing to talk to them now than we were in 2001, and our position, the position from which we’re dealing, is a much weaker one.  So it’s hard to be very optimistic in these circumstances that we can pick up where we left off in 2001 or 2003. 

GIDEON ROSE:  Okay.  If there are no more questions, Jim, do you have any final thoughts or do you want to let that stand? 

JIM DOBBINS:  I mean Steve asked me about Xao’s views.  I mean, I think that Xao was able to achieve more in Afghanistan because the situation was more promising.  The great majority of Afghans want NATO, want the United States to stay.  The numbers are not as high as they were six years ago, but they’re still fairly high.  The majority of Afghans think Karzai is their president, think he’s legitimate, and want him to remain their president.  Again, his numbers aren’t as high as they were a few years ago, but they’re still reasonably high.  And the United States had, at least for a while, a consensus among all of the neighboring states in favor of the project we were supporting in Afghanistan .  Now that’s weakened, not so much because of poor relations with Iran, it’s weakened because Pakistan has backed away from the more positive attitude it had six years ago, and allowed insurgency to grow in the sanctuary areas along the border.  Nevertheless, I think the objective circumstances that Khalilzad faced in Iraq were much more difficult and allowed much less scope for his undeniable, you know, talents and skills and personal diplomacy. 

GIDEON ROSE:  Okay.  Thank you all for attending, look forward to future discussions with you.  And always look for your feedback not only on what we do here, but on the magazine in general.  Ambassador Dobbins, thank you very much for providing your insight.  And see you all later.  Bye-bye. 

JIM DOBBINS:  Bye-bye.

OPERATOR:  This concludes today’s teleconference.  You may disconnect at this time.  

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