Virtual Roundtable: Life Lessons Learned With James Dobbins

Monday, September 13, 2021
James Dobbins

Senior Fellow and Distinguished Chair in Diplomacy and Security, RAND Corporation


Mary and David Boies Distinguished Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

James Dobbins discusses his distinguished career in public service.

Visit “How I Got Here: James Dobbins” on the Foreign Affairs Career Center for more information.

The Lives in Public Service Roundtable Series features some of the country’s outstanding public servants discussing the lessons learned from their lives and careers.

ROSE: Thank you very much. Hi everybody, and welcome to another session of our Public Lives Round Table, which should be a doozy. We have a great good fortune today of speaking with Jim Dobbins, Ambassador James Dobbins, about his extraordinary career and his extraordinary life, and frankly about the current stuff that's going on as well. I'll just say that, by the way for those who have not yet attended one of these round tables, the basic point of this is to uncover what actually makes the people who make American foreign policy and public life tick, by getting their real stories of the people who are the best professionals and the best people in the business, and then making them answer honest questions about all the most important subjects. We do interviews with them on The Foreign Affairs career site, I assume you've all read through one with Jim, which is sent to beforehand, if you haven't, he's had a spectacular career after stints at Georgetown School of foreign service and the Navy, he then had a long successful run in the foreign service, and he describes his own career as having had two phases. The first half being a series of diplomatic triumphs and glories in the European theater in which he not only led the high life but helped bring Europe to a peaceful united conclusion.

And then a second half in which he became a kind of Cassandra/Quincy of American military interventions, the leading expert on how to screw up interventions and how not to screw up interventions and then brought in to try to make sure they were not screwed up in the last couple of generations of American foreign policy. And has watched as administration after administration has failed to take his advice and then helped turn to him to try and salvage the remains. And I'd like to talk... We'll talk to him in great detail about Afghanistan. I'll just say that when I grow up professionally, I want to be Jim Dobbins.

I first met him more than a quarter century ago when I first came to the council and did a study group, my first study group on exit strategies, and Richard put him on the panel for adult supervision. And he was right to do so and I have been learning what it means to be an adult professional from Jim for the 26 years since. And some day, hopefully, I may actually become one. One thing that he said in that study group always stuck with me, and it embodies one of his great talents, which is an extraordinary facility with language. All good foreign service officers can speak, can use language as a tool, either to say things or not to say things. It is very difficult to use language and not communicate. It goes against everything we have in us. Only the best foreign service officers, in my experience, can get away with doing it.

And a good example of this struck me in that study group, the first one when I was criticizing the Clinton administration for its withdrawal deadline from Bosnia, they had smugly said a year withdrawal, and I was going to ultimately say "We should not have such deadlines." And Jim interrupted me in the study group and said "No, it's not a withdrawal deadline." I said "Jim, what do you mean, it's not a withdrawal deadline?". He said, "It's a date by which the nature and extent of the American commitment to Bosnia will change."

And I said, "Wait, can you please repeat that? I want to take that down because you've taken something that everybody understood to have a very clear meaning and you've emptied it out so entirely that nobody has any idea about it, that's just genius.". He looked a little perplexed as who was this little whippersnapper who was making fun of me, but it really was genius, and I say that because today we're going to get the straight talking off the record Jim, the one after the doors have been closed, when the feet are up and the scotch is poured, who's going to tell us his honest thoughts about life and the world. And with that, Jim, welcome. Thank you for doing this and subjecting yourself to it. Second, in the grand schema of screwed up American exits from interventions that you and I know so well that you've participated in, observed, studied and written about for well over a couple of decades, how bad was Afghanistan?

DOBBINS: Bad, I'd say. I mean, it's not as catastrophic as Vietnam in terms of the gross numbers involved. The gross numbers of Americans, the gross numbers of casualties. It's more catastrophic for the population, and the population of Afghanistan is roughly twice the population of South Vietnam, at the time.

ROSE: How could we screw this up so badly? Didn't anybody read your books?

DOBBINS: Well to be fair, my books were written mostly after we went into Afghanistan and so a lot of the lessons in them are ex post facto. I think that Afghanistan was never an impossible task, but it became a progressively more difficult one early on as a result of growing mistakes, and I attribute that to in part our domestic politics. The Clinton administration had four interventions over eight years, it became progressively more successful from a very low base. Somalia, Haiti, also not tremendously successful, then Bosnia and Kosovo. Both of which are now 25 years later, still at peace.

And the Republicans were in opposition, the job of the opposition is to oppose, they opposed all of these and they came into office saying they were never going to do it again. Then of course they undertook two such missions in the first three years, but they were intent on doing them differently. And particularly Donald Rumsfeld stuck to that, now George Bush changed his mind and embraced nation building with all the fervor of a new convert by 2004, 2005. But initially advised the minimalist approach to both of these missions, and as a result we waited until opposition had a chance to coalesce, until violent opposition, had a chance to organize and challenge this. So we were effectively reinforcing defeat rather than victory.

ROSE: Okay, that raises the fascinating counterfactual of, if they had brought Jim Dobbins in at the start rather than later and said, "How do we plan this from the day we take over Kabul rather than waiting until the situation goes bad before trying to retake it," what could you have done? It was the problem the execution of the occupation, or was it always baked into the cake that this would screw up?

DOBBINS: Well to be fair they did bring me in at the beginning, so I was appointed as special envoy for Afghanistan in October.

ROSE: So they just didn't listen to you.

DOBBINS: And so I share some of the responsibility, not all. So one of the failures was the failure to... Was the under resourcing the effort. And there I did push back, but unsuccessfully. Now the other failure was the failure to engage the Taliban and see if we could co-op at least some element of it early on. And that I should say I was as responsible as anyone for being blind to that opportunity. I think I felt, as probably most people did, that the Taliban was a spent force, they'd been displaced so easily, so completely, so totally, that it just seemed inconceivable that they would come back in any meaningful way. I think we understood that Pakistan had abandoned the Taliban government. We didn't understand that Pakistan hadn't abandoned the Taliban, which was, there's a distinction there. And it took us five years to realize that Pakistan was still backing the Taliban.

ROSE: But wait a second. Let me unpack that. A lot of interesting stuff there. With regard to the, "We didn't realize the Taliban could come back, or would come back," did they come back because there was an inherent demand for the Taliban, or did they come back because after several years of foreign occupation with different powers local warlords who don't make life particularly all that much better, and are still corrupt, an anti-occupation, nationalist opposition, insurgency, is going to spring up. And if it happens to be in a country with the history of the Taliban, it'll take that form. In other words, did they come back because they were the Taliban, or because our occupation produced a native response from the antibodies of Afghanistan?

DOBBINS: I think probably some combination of those factors. I think the fact that they had a foreign sanctuary, that they could re-arm, re-finance, re-organize, re-train, and project power back into Afghanistan gradually was very important and they probably would have had a much more difficult time without that. I think the fact that we didn't allow the international peace keeping force to provide security for Afghanistan in the interim, that we relied on the, essentially the warlords who had helped us win the war, to provide security and told a country with no national army and no national police force that we weren't going to help in providing security. I think that was another factor. I think there was a national pride in a resistance to occupation, but I think though it's hard to argue that we were occupying the country, we only had 8000 troops in Afghanistan a year after we were there in a country of 30 million people.

ROSE: Quick counterfactual. The engaging the Taliban, that would have been a bridge too far politically, I bet, even if we could have brought ourselves to understand the diplomatic rationale for it seriously at the high levels. But let's imagine some mistakes that were fairly easily correctable in an alternate reality. The better resourcing and the international peacekeeping and or that kind of stuff. And a better occupation that was more intentionally and mindfully run. If you do that, does the occupation still screw up or does it work?

DOBBINS: I think it would have a better chance of working. It was always going to be difficult, more difficult than people realize. Afghanistan...

ROSE: Had a chance from what to what? What percentage did it have as we did it, and what percentage would it have improved to if you did those things?

DOBBINS: I'm not sure I can give you percentages. Look, Afghanistan is twice the size of South Vietnam. The population is twice as big as South Vietnam was when that conflict began. It's certainly bigger than any other country that the United States intervened in since 1945. And we had the smallest force of most of those interventions, and the smallest amount of assistance dollars for the first few years. So we created a vacuum, and didn't fill the vacuum. Now I'd challenge that we couldn't have done something with the Taliban. A number of Taliban figures did come over, did surrender, and instead of allowing them to participate in a new regime, in fact, we put them in Guantanamo or in prison for years, at least. Mullah Omar personally offered Karzai to surrender and Karzai was persuaded from that by Don Rumsfeld. Now, what I'm concerned about it was that nobody ever debated this. I was in charge of coordinating policy towards Afghanistan for the whole US government in the post-Taliban era, for the first six months. And we never had a meeting on the subject, we never discussed it. It was just done thoughtlessly. And if we'd had a meeting, we could have at least debated the possibility.

ROSE: Once the initial occupation goes south, the opposition builds to it and you're fighting a rear-guard action. So, by the time of the surge. At that point, is it lost and it's just a question of how you play the end game? Or was anything possible? Was it still possible to win from 2010 on?

DOBBINS: I think the surge had a possibility of succeeding as it did in Iraq, if it was sustained. Now that could of course... What do you mean by winning? And by winning it would have meant reversing the tide of battle, significantly. Giving yourself the significant breathing space, not necessarily being able to pull out at the end of it.

ROSE: You have... Okay, let's go to Iraq for a second. Actually, wait no, let's stay with Afghanistan just for a second. The... Given the hand the Biden administration inherited from the Trump administration, and all the ones before it, could the last six months of US-Afghanistan policy have played out differently and better? Or was this kind of thing the inevitable final coda to the failure, failures and mistakes of earlier in the operation?

DOBBINS: Well, that's two questions. Did we have to withdraw? And did we withdraw... And was that withdrawal handled well? Now I personally didn't believe we had to withdraw. I was part of the Afghan study group that, under General Dunford that made various recommendations. We didn't feel that the Trump agreement was governing, but it had many deadlines in it, none of which had been met. Many obligations that the Taliban had taken, most of which they hadn't fulfilled.

And so we didn't think that that was necessarily a government consideration. I think we were past a point where the issue was victory or defeat. It was defeat or not defeat. Losing or not losing were the options. And we could have chosen not to lose. As Obama did and as Trump did. We should have pushed that decision off to the successor, because they feared the consequences. Obama declared the withdrawal by 2016. A month after he declared that the Islamic State burst out of Syria and marched on the gates of Baghdad. And it was clear from that point on that he wasn't going to repeat his withdrawal in Iraq, in Afghanistan, whatever he had promised. And Trump similarly pushed it off to the next administration.

ROSE: Was the fear that you talked about a fear of geopolitical consequences or domestic political consequences? If they left.

DOBBINS: Well, with Trump I would have thought it would be domestic, that's the only thing he cared about. With Obama, probably some combination of it, but... And it's hard to separate the two.

ROSE: Okay, let's turn to Iraq for a second. Counterfactual, Petraeus and Crocker take over in May 2003 with empowerment and resources to do what they want.

DOBBINS: 2006, wasn't it?

ROSE: No, no, I'm saying the counterfactual is Petraeus and Crocker take over with resources and autonomy in May 2003. What does Iraq look like later on? Does that... Are they able... If we take the best of our intervention planners and our Paul Mill teams and we put them in at the right time, would that have been enough to save Iraq? To put Iraq on a good strategy down the road? Or was Iraq always and inevitably going to screw up?

DOBBINS: It would have been better if we put the most senior corps commander in the army and corps headquarters in a place where we soon went to a four-star headquarters and a much larger footprints. We had decided to formally occupy Iraq, rather than what we had done in Afghanistan. And... But the real challenge is... The real question is, if we'd properly resourced Afghanistan we never would have invaded Iraq. Because we wouldn't have had the forces and the money to do so. It's clear if you accurately assess the complexity and the demands of one of these operations, you're not going to do two of them at the same time.

ROSE: This is actually a key big lesson. I said the other day, to Sarah Foster, that I was thinking about Jamestown and Roanoke and the various early settlements of the American colonies. And I said to her that if Jim Dobbins had been in charge there would never have been the colonization of America. Because these people were all schmucks who went off on these crazy expeditions, without the right equipment, with no real plans to what to do when they get there. They get to the other side and they founder and then they have to make a new world that they ultimately sort of do so. And I was trying to think, if you had had... And I said to myself, "If Jim Dobbins had planned the Jamestown expedition, what would it have consisted of?" I need this many people to start a colony, I need to defend against the Indians, I need to have this amount of resources for farming.

And then I realized if you had planned it out you would have said, "This venture will not work, I should not do this. My recommendation is don't colonize Virginia." And then I realized that much of life basically was a sort of history of self-con in which you did things that were really stupid that you shouldn't have done and then found yourself improvising afterwards. And that's basically how we've done many of the interventions that you and I have studied over the course of... Have worked on over the course of our careers. You do something stupid, you get involved and then, "Oh, how do I make this work?"

But you've sort of not done it intentionally from the beginning. My question to you, big question, in the interview, you said when I asked you about the differences between the interventions of the '90s and the interventions of the aughts, which is that one lesson is about scale, you mentioned this with Afghanistan. Is the lesson from Afghanistan and Iraq, compared to Bosnia, Kosovo and some of the others, that you simply... That the resource requirements of nation-building at giant scale are simply too great for the United States to accomplish, and therefore should not be tried and therefore instead of going to war and trying to remake large countries ever again, despite whatever the country it is, we should try to adopt some other approach to dealing with those countries? Is that your big take-away from the interventions of the 21st century?

DOBBINS: No I mean we succeeded in Germany and Japan, which was a large scale, so it depends on what the provocation is. You don't invade countries to make them democratic. You don't invade countries to make them prosperous. You invade countries to stop something, stop aggression, stop genocide, stop terrorism. And when you get there, you're left with, "Okay, you succeeded in that took two weeks, now what do you do?" And how do you prevent repetition? And that's the way you get into the nation-building paradigm, which is your really only viable option, is to try to leave behind something that will be self-sustaining.

ROSE: What if you can't? What if you look at this and say, "This place where the bad thing came from is not fundamentally solvable. It is a wicked problem that has little strategic interest, and what I want to do is cauterize this immediate threat and move on with my life rather than try to remake this place."

DOBBINS: Well, that was essentially our approach at the end of the Cold War. We decided we couldn't rescue the Soviet Union or Russia. They were too big, they were too... I believe that the dimensions of the problem were out of scale. And so we offered a limited amount of assistance and let events take their course. Whereas we did intervene more seriously, not militarily, but economically and politically, in Eastern Europe, where the scale was better. So yes, we faced that. It really depends on the provocation and your overall objective. So I do think that the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are first, that we do need to be more prudent about choosing your when and where to intervene. And above all, don't do two at once. It's not just a question of resources, it's a question of time and attention for high-level policymakers. Doing these operations is something the US doesn't do well.

There's no agency that has it as a primary task, and so they all have to be forced to do things they don't want to do. Every agency of the government is involved, doing something they don't want to do. And the only way that that works is if higher authority, which is the White House, and integrated mechanisms it controls is continually overriding the process. And that's what didn't happen in Afghanistan. As soon as Kabul fell, they were on to Iraq and they had two principled meetings in the first six months of the Afghan endeavor. It's perplexing to me, that after Kabul fell, in the next six months. Whereas in the earlier Clinton administration, because they were under more domestic pressure to show results, they had continuous meetings.

ROSE: When I was younger, I thought the challenge was to learn great truths and develop a better evidentiary base for understanding what worked and what didn't, and what approaches to try when, to foreign policy, and that there was the possibility of knowledge accumulating, thanks to sort of practitioners and scholars working together and doing applied research to further that. I even wrote a book, stupid me, on how to end wars well. The decades that have gone by have soured me on the notion of learning, and now I'm struck by the degree of forgetting that occurs rather than the amount of learning that gets accumulated. My question to you as someone who's been playing this game much longer than me and watching the same shit play out, do you feel now that there is any substantial learning that occurs in American foreign policy over time? Do you think it is possible there could be? And those both questions to you.

DOBBINS: Yes, I do think so. In one instance, learning --it's fundamental. By people in the field who just over time become more accustomed to certain tasks and do them more frequently. The Clinton administration certainly learned how to do nation-building well. Four interventions, each one was better than the last. The last two were quite successful. Now, we do have a problem when that passes from one administration to other one and they're a different party. That's certainly a problem, and that's one that is exacerbated by the American spoils system which gives continuous career expertise over value from other systems.

It's not impossible for career people to influence these events, but it's harder, particularly at the beginning of a new administration when you're by definition a hold-over and suspect, so that's an obstacle. But I do think that the Defense Department in particular is a learning institution, which puts a lot of weight on lessons learned, studies on reviewing and critiquing performance. They pay the organization, the RAND Corporation a lot of money to tell them what they're doing wrong, and they listen. Not always, not entirely, but they listen.

ROSE: Watching Vietnam play out a second full time in my lifetime, I have become less optimistic than I used to be. Final question before I turn you over to the jackals. Well, not jackals, if it's any... If Frank Wisner's session was anything it'll be more like a wake. By the way, everybody, you don't need to tell Jim what a wonderful, incredible guy he is, and how your life was changed by meeting him before every question, you can just fire him the questions. So my question, this last one to you, Jim, is I'm struck, when I talk to professionals from your generation, World War II and after. In the succeeding generation, I guess I would say.

By how common a strong commitment to national service and a public service ethic, a combination of the highest standards of professionalism, deep ambition and talent, but in the public domain, was something that was quite common among many people, and it wasn't even sort of a question career-wise, or it wasn't a weird choice to do some of the kind of things that you and others like you did. Do you feel that is still true? Do you think the younger generations in the field... Is there the same commitment to public service now among younger generations that there was when you were growing up?

DOBBINS: Well, people don't tend to quit aside from public, private employment, people just don't follow the same career path. They don't join an organization at 21 and leave it at 50,60. They skip, they go from one to the other. So it's common for people, even if people stay in government they change agencies, even if they stay in foreign affairs they spend half their time in think tanks and half their time in government service. But there is a career professional foreign affairs category, half of whom are not in the government at any one time, but all of whom want to serve in the government at some point. So I think it's different, but it's different in terms of... It's different as it is different for any profession today.

ROSE: One last thing before I turn you over. I guess I realized I did want to get the emotional thing or the personal thing. For those of us who came of age in the post '50s and post '60s era, the '70s and on, the more recent political turmoil of the last several years and the viciousness and the partisan bias has come as a gross shock, and the divisions... We didn't think things could be like this politically. How in your life... The current political turmoil and divisions, are they worse now than they've ever been? Is it just another turn of the wheel back to stuff we've already done, or what's your take?

DOBBINS: I think they're more dangerous because they're leading to the credibility of the system. I mean, Vietnam and the anti-Vietnam was much more vocal, was much more violent, was much more numerous than anything that's occurred since. The march on Washington, the rioting that occurred in Washington, at the Democratic convention in '68 and a lot of other places, was much worse than the attack on the Capitol, for instance on January 6th. But they weren't designed to overthrow the U.S government for the most part, they were designed to change its policies. And so I think it represented a different mirror, a different type of threat than the current challenges that rose to the lead of the... Devalue our democracy, and whether we're prepared to reach accommodations for that higher purpose.

ROSE: On that note, let us open it to general questions. Thank you, Jim, and I look forward to continuing this discussion.

SPEAKER: As a reminder today's discussion is on the record. To ask a question, please click on the raised hand icon on your Zoom window. When you were called on, please accept the "unmute now" prompt and proceed with your name and affiliation followed by your question. If you'd like to view the roster of registered participants for this meeting, please click the link in the Zoom chat. Thank you. At this time, there are no questions in the queue. Back to you, Dr. Rose.

ROSE: Okay, this is really the first time a Council audience has been left speechless in my lifetime. I'll ask one for you, Jim. I know just how sharp you are as a professional and just how critical your commentary and advice is the vast majority of the time. You don't approve of most things that are done. You hold yourself and everybody else to very high standards. Okay, you also can let that be known very sharply and very directly, and yet you're also extraordinarily politic, and you can be this great diplomat, and so my question... And you can accept having been a staffer and overruled in your advice continually the way a professional foreign service officer is, I don't quite understand that psychology, so could you explicate that a little bit, which is the obnoxious type A National Security professionals of my generation who came up through the non-foreign service things, we have strong opinions too, like you, but we're not as easily, sort of, serving others and getting stuff done while keeping our opinions and nasty thoughts to ourselves. What is the psychology that allows you to do that? Is it just a relentless practical benefit of, "Here's what I can do and I need to just do it?"

DOBBINS: What you want to do is be heard and be taken seriously. And if you get that, that's sufficient. And you want to get it, and so, you weren't elected, you're not in charge, someone else is, but if that person respects your opinion, if he seeks it, if he listens or if she listens, and then comes to a different decision, that's okay. It's not as satisfactory as prevailing and frankly I've prevailed more often than not but some of the failures... And some of the Ex post facto criticism of policy is easier done from the standpoint of 20 years than it was at the time. But I think that's... Yeah, I mean if you're going to be in this for life, if you envisage a career in public service rather than a career half spent outside and half spent inside the government, then you have to think in the long term.

Certainly when administrations change you have to win trust all over again. You're not trusted and you need to win that trust all over again. But you don't do it by ass kissing, you don't do it by being a yes person, you do it by giving them advice that they're not hearing somewhere else. And even if you're overruled, and then proved to be right, you gain credibility.

ROSE: I admire that, more than I can say, because I would have trouble doing that. So while we wait for questions to pile up, we've talked about basically the second half of your career, you spent the first half in Europe, living the life and having fun, learning at the feet and around great people. Your stories of being in Paris while negotiating during the day and joining the youth protests and observing them at night during '68, that's a pretty... The first half of your diplomatic career sounded pretty charmed.

DOBBINS: Yeah I never served sort of more than 200 miles from Paris. It was pretty good. Paris, Brussels, London, Bonn, Strasbourg were my posts. And the second half of my career was . . . and I missed the first half. But the second half had the benefit of giving me a second career. I've spent 20 years, written a dozen books and so, all on state building, interventions, political military, third world issues which I never would have had that opportunity had I spent the second half of my career on the European circuit.

ROSE: Okay, so talk about that for a second, because you were saying these days, people aren't lifers, they don't go to one place and stay the entire time. But you had two completely or two different segments within your foreign service career because of what happened with Helms and all that kind of stuff. And you were able to reinvent yourself, as it were, after a setback and an unjustified screw-up kind of thing. And then go have an entire new career and a separate... Or a new phase... A new lease on your professional life and a new stage of expertise. How did you you turn the frustration and annoyance into sort of professional accomplishment and a new life rather than sort of like blowing up in frustration and annoyance at what happened to you?

DOBBINS: Well it was a question of opportunity. So when Clinton came in, I was a Bush holdover, I had been running the European Bureau, I had been engaged in the German unification process and I was ambassador to the European Union and I was replaced by a political appointee abruptly and without consultation, it was suggested that I retire. At that point I was 50 years old and I didn't want to retire. So I went off and took a sabbatical at the RAND Corporation for a few months and then I was available when Somalia blew up. The Black Hawk Down incident and they decided, Let's get out of here. Let's get somebody in charge of this who can get us out with the memo without further embarrassment. So I took over that task. And I was still waiting around for something to do when they decided to invade Haiti. And they said, "Well he got us out of Somalia, maybe he can help us get into Haiti." Well I got them into Haiti and then they said, "Well now that he's got us into Haiti, he can get us out." So I spent two years doing that.

DOBBINS: By that time I had sufficiently annoyed Jesse Helms that he was dedicated the last 15 years of his life to ensuring that I never got promoted or never got another presidential appointment. So again I was available for these ad-hoc assignments. First in the Balkans, Palestine and Kosovo and then in Afghanistan. And so it turned out to be a blessing in disguise and one that in the end I appreciated. I was selected by the president to be ambassador to Argentina, selected by the next president to be ambassador to the Philippines. In both cases, blocked those assignments and I went on to something much more interesting. Something I could write books about, I don't think I would have wrote a book about being ambassador to the Philippines.

ROSE: With that we have some questions back up so we'll now go back to the queue.

BOHLEN: Jim. So I'm Avis Bohlen, I'm retired foreign service officer, I had the pleasure and the wonderful experience of working for Jim and with Jim many times in the charmed part of his career, not the failed state, but it was always instructive, and Jim was a very good and instructive boss. I know you said not to heap praise on the speaker Gideon, but I just have to say that. And my question is, has to do with Afghanistan. Jim, in a recent article you cited as a successful example of nation-building Germany where we were not under-resourced and so on and so forth. But even in an ideal scenario where we'd had enough resources in Afghanistan, it's hard to imagine an outcome like modern Germany. What would you have defined as the ideal outcome in Afghanistan if we had done it properly? Would it, I mean given Afghanistan is basically a tribal society and all the other attributes, that you know far better than I.

DOBBINS: Yeah, I mean I don't think... Avis thank you for the preface and I encourage others to ignore it, would want to be wise avoid the... I don't think it's realistic to think you're gonna take some state out of the context it's in so turning Afghanistan into Germany or Japan is clearly not on the cards. But I think the objective is to make it like a neighboring state that isn't at civil war. Now Afghanistan has had several long, prolonged periods where it's been at peace and relatively prosperous compared to its current state and developing. So I think, you know, the objective of any intervention is to leave behind a state or a society that's at peace with itself. Now given Pakistan's ambitions that make life impossible, and therefore what you would have wanted to leave behind is a state capable of defending itself. And you're probably right that given the disparity between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the other neighbors that Afghanistan has, that was probably impossible and that some degree of American involvement was going to be necessary to balance the forces.

ROSE: This is Gideon, let me just take a two finger on that, or a comment, to point out how subtle and impressive what Jim just said was because the goal of American interventions, if you think of all the discussion we hear about them, they're usually couched in stupid ideological terms or purely negative punitive terms, or a whole variety of other kinds of abstract goals, which don't necessarily have any connection to the country or situation in question. And then we get into trouble when reality comes in and bites us in the ass. And what Jim just suggested after life and experience is, Look, the practical test for your intervention or the practical result should be a country that you can exit from, that is the minimum... We used to call it the minimum viable product in the tech side of things, when you're launching a new thing, MVP. The Minimum Viable Product for an American intervention is a country that can defend itself internally and externally. And it'll probably look a lot like it's neighbors. If you try to make it much higher, it's probably not going to be sustainable. But if you don't even take care of the minimal precautions, it'll come back to bite you even more so.

 So focus on realistic practical goals from the beginning, and then try to achieve those and count yourself lucky if you can. That is both more... It's a caution against the hubris from the ideological side, and a caution against the hubris and callousness from the isolationist side. And it's the mixture of a solid professional, and it's the kind of thing that the learning that does occur, one hopes that it becomes cumulative in the foreign policy of the country at large, that's all. Now, back to the questions.

SPEAKER: We'll take the next question from Mike Meese. Please accept the “unmute now” prompt.

MEESE: Great, thanks very much and thanks for Gideon putting this together, and Jim for commenting on your great career. Actually, I'm a retired military officer, now working for a non-profit taking care of veterans, but I teach as an adjunct at Georgetown to security study students, and the last lesson, we had them read the famous Dobbins book that you did at RAND; America's role in nation building from Germany to Iraq. So it's now got authorship of people who were born shortly before you wrote it, they're reading that. And as I take them back to what you wrote as it was published in 2003, I wonder if you could comment on the reaction that it got when it was published then, and your thinking... You answered already in the hypothetical that Gideon raised of, What if Petraeus and Crocker had been in charge instead of Sanchez and others? But... How can you explain the inability to have effective post-war coordination in 2003 when you had the study and Iraq report from State Department and great writing from you, from RAND, and others? Describe a little bit of that, so that I can re-capture it for my Georgetown students and they can learn from some of the challenges that you confronted there as you wrote that report.

ROSE: Two words: "Donald Rumsfeld."

DOBBINS: Yeah. That's just shorthand. The report did get some traction. Jerry Bremer got an advanced copy of it, took it seriously, mentioned it to the president, sent a copy to Rumsfeld, and argued that we didn't have much choice. Now, at that time, we were pulling troops out of Iraq rather than putting them in. And he's got that stopped, so maybe it contributed to that at least. But I think that those people who read it didn't even get beyond the first two chapters. Germany and Japan. And thought that we could achieve something similar in Iraq. And that particularly took the form of declassification and an attempt to exclude a significant portion of society, the biggest patriots network in the country, from any participation in its politics or in its economy. And we did the same thing in Afghanistan when we decided that the Taliban was never again... And people associated with it were never again going to play a role in the politics or the economy of Afghanistan.

So yeah, you can do that if you have the resources and the credibility that comes from it, victory such as you had Germany in and Japan. In Germany, the US sector in Germany was 20 million people and we had two million American troops. So one person in 10 in the American sector was an American at the end of the war. You can influence a lot and declassification was successful. But attempting that, anything on that scale with 8000 people in the 30 million population is really not going to work. So I think that knowledge is cumulative and a little bit you write a book . . . If a little bit of that sticks, then you've been very successful. I think a little bit stuck, but not enough.

ROSE: I'd like to actually comment on another book and later book in the same kind of project or series, which is the one on the CPA. Jim did a book on the CPA called, I think it was like Occupying Iraq: A History of the CPA. And it's really interesting, and... Oh, Nora Bensahel also did a book or later thing on it, or anyway. That the lesson of that was, that I took, which is very interesting, is for all the crap Bremer and the CPA took, what brought the Iraq occupation down was not CPA. It was the military failure in the countryside, not the CPA civilian-side programs there. And it was the DOD. Anyway, I took away some very interesting lessons from that. The real histories of these wars. By the way, it's going to be so cool to see the histories of Iraq and Afghanistan written later on by dispassionate people. And we go, "How could we not see this stuff at the time?" But anyway, back to the chain.

SPEAKER: We'll take the next question from Teresita Schaffer. Please accept the "unmute now" prompt.

SCHAFFER: Thank you. And good to see you, Jim. I'm Tezi Schaffer, retired foreign service and now working at McLarty Associates. When you talked about the things that were going to drive the end result of our various interventions, you talked about resources entirely properly. You didn't talk so much about what you have to work with... What you had to work with in doing nation-building. I don't like the phrase because it's incredibly presumptuous, but when you talk about Germany this was, after all, a company that had some collective experience in running an elected government. I'm less familiar with the previous history of Japan, although I'm mindful of the saying that people have that they were the world's worst winners and the world's best losers. But in both of those cases, the countries knew good and well that they had been defeated. It strikes me that in the interventions we've been talking about, and here I'm talking mainly about Afghanistan, which I know better than I do Iraq, you have certain home-grown institutions for gaining the consent of the governed, for want of a better term. But none of them look like the kind of elections that we have run. You've got a very decentralized country that was trying to cram itself into a quite centralized constitution.

You have a lot of... You have not enough resources. I think you had an awful lot of things pushing against a success in Afghanistan. And looking back now, in hindsight, you also had this Taliban who went off and disappeared for a while, biding their time. And then when they wanted to make some noise they came back and did so. And when they saw that the US was leaving, against a deadline that had been announced, perhaps without your elegant phrasing, but it sure looked like a deadline if you were a visitor from Mars. They came out of the woodwork, having prepared for that point however they normally prepared for it. Not all of that could have been predicted at the outset, but I wonder if we don't have a lot of raw materials there for trying to discern what the conditions are for making significant changes in somebody else's country?

DOBBINS: Well, first of all, I agree that you're not going to make Afghanistan into Germany or Japan. The best you could do is make Afghanistan into another country that's under development, that wasn't at civil war. That's the best you could do. Without changing significantly. I do think that there's a suggestion... An impression that the United States forced it on the Afghans, a highly centralized government. That's not... That's definitely not true. The Afghans themselves were strongly supportive of the necessity to overcome the divisions that had rendered their country... Ended their country for the... Several decades. They wanted a strong executive and a strong central government and were deaf to the suggestion that federalism, or something similar, might have some virtue given the virtue of their society. So, it wasn't... This wasn't something foisted on them.

I think that... It's... We were successful in a sense, if you look at Afghanistan's neighborhood and its neighbors, Afghanistan was the most democratic country in central Asia, was the country with the best human rights records, was the country with the greatest freedom of media and the only country to hold regular re-elections. Now, none of those were perfect. And you're probably right that they didn't prove sustainable. That is the population wasn't prepared to fight to preserve them, which was a disappointment. But I don't think we were working against the grain necessarily, in doing this.

SPEAKER: There are no questions in the queue at this time.

ROSE: Okay. On that point, and this is... Unless there's... One pops up at the last second. On the way out, you've... I am struck, again, by your relative optimism, not just prudence. Many, many people, with your experience and with much less of your experience with how intractable the world is, would draw conclusions about not trying to achieve as much, trying to be more reluctant to intervene. You still seem to hold out both the hope that these things can go well and the belief that the sort of good technocrats can help make it better. And if anything ever gets done it's because of what you just said, but I still marvel at your ability to remain optimistic and keep plugging away and offering your advice, when the demonstrable evidence of the world seems to suggest that there are few people out there listening.

DOBBINS: Well, you may be right. I'm certainly arguing against the grain, the current. But I'd say two things. First of all, there's a dozen, probably two dozen countries around the world that are at peace because foreign troops came in, usually by getting rid of poverty and oversaw the implementation of a peace agreement, stayed around long enough to secure local elections and defend and secure its own government and stayed long enough for it to take root. And so, broadly speaking, if you don't like the term nation building, post conflict reconstruction and stabilization, is broadly, a process with more success that it can fail. Now, if you go to a counterintuitive example, Iraq. Is Iraq a success or not? Well, my criteria for success is you leave behind a country at peace with itself and stable. Is Iraq a country at peace with itself and stable? Yes.

Now, the Iraq intervention was unnecessary, unjustified and the cost was far beyond what any rational person would have been prepared to do, even assuming that you credit it ultimately a success. But the second intervention, not the first, that is the one against ISIS, turned the tide and you have, admittedly, a very uneasy equilibrium, but Iraq is now a country in the Middle East, much like others, torn by internal conditions, but still holding democratic elections and it's not at civil war and it is not at war with any of its neighbors and it is not in danger of going to war with any of its neighbors.

ROSE: Iraq, the jewel in the crown of the American empire. I love it. Jim Dobbins, thank you very much. Thank all of you. We look forward to seeing you and Jim, many more books, many more studies, many more decades. Take care.

DOBBINS: Thank you. Thank you for doing it.

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