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James Dobbins on correcting US missteps in vision and implementation in the Middle East


Following are my notes taken from James Dobbins speech at the New America Foundation’s panel discussion on Moral Clarity & the Middle East: Long War, Wider War, or the Return to a Peace Process?, 24 August, 2006. Dobbins served as US special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. and now directs RAND's International Security and Defense Policy Center.

In the wake of Sept 11, 2001, he was designated as the Bush Administration's representative to the Afghan opposition. He helped organize and then represented the United States at the Bonn Conference where a new Afghan government was formed. On Dec. 16, 2001, he raised the flag over the newly reopened US Embassy. Earlier in his State Department career Dobbins served twice as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, as Deputy Chief of Mission in Germany, and as Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe.

This is NOT A TRANSCRIPTION per se but I submit that it substantially presents Dobbins’ encapsulation of his themes (which are well known - see citations at end) regarding the failure of vision and implementation by the Bush43 administration in Iraq in particular and the Middle East in general. This content will be cited in subsequent notes that call for a reassessment of US and Israeli actions in engaging frontline states in both the Levant and Iraq.

Introduced by Steve Clemons, American Strategy Program/New America Foundation. Clemons cites Dobbins’s IHT article, Moral clarity in the Mideast, that ‘brought clarity and sensibility to a muddled issue’ and that he welcomed Dobbins’ comments that were ‘free from constraints that bar clear and open discussion.’ Clemons also cited Daniel Levy’s article in the Forward, Quit the Canard That American Policy Advances Israeli Security, and Flynt Leverett’s article in American Prospect, Illusion and Reality. Those items will be also addressed in subsequent notes.

James Dobbins: In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush43 said you’re either with us or against us, and that made sense at the time as many were with us in a broad coalition not unlike that in 1989 against Iraq for the liberation of Kuwait. US diplomacy abroad had been generally successful and welcomed through the 1990s such that Bush41 and Clinton were more popular abroad than in the US. At 9/11 us leadership was welcomed yet five years later the US is probably at a nadir, probably more isolated that at any time in its history. Iraq, in part, has spent 60 years of accumulated US goodwill.

What went wrong? The easy answer is Iraq, but the problems commenced much earlier. I will divide those five years into three chapters: Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon:

Chapter 1: Afghanistan

Victory was not unique as almost all conventional wars conclude successfully and quickly. What was unique was the smoothness of the post-conflict period that owed its success to a broad based effort based derived from broad international support, modest objectives, and the support of all of Afghanistan’s neighbors.

It is a mistake to believe that the US formed a coalition to insure that Afghanistan was stable and was not a source of international terrorism; post 9/11, the US joined an existing coalition of India, Russia, Iran and the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. The US was not the leader in many of the goals that rose from the Bonn Conference; it was Iran that included democracy in governance (my brief did not include that) and cooperation against international terrorism.

The US, Iran, Russia and Germany worked over the Northern Alliance to secure the Bonn Declaration. Iran was a very cooperative member throughout the period. The Northern Alliance wanted 18 of 24 ministries which was insufficiently representative. It was the US, Iranian, Russian and German delegations that bent the NA to accept 16 of 24. Iran had the most senior delegation to Karzai’s inauguration. At the Tokyo donor’s conference, Iran pledged (and proceeded to deliver) $500 Million dollars, by far the largest donation of non-OECD members. Iran offered Dobbins a proposal to rebuild Afghan forces under US leadership, to house, pay, clothe and arm a 20K man force. Dobbins relayed the idea to Washington but it was never taken up by Washington.

Chapter 2: the Axis of Evil speech

The Axis of Evil speech linked together two declared enemies (Iran and Iraq) as cooperating states. That all three states were evil was defensible but that an axis of evil existed was indefensible.

A month later came the National Intelligence Estimate that enshrined two doctrines: never permit the emergence of a peer competitor and preemption. While both are intellectually defensive, they were unnecessarily provocative. Making it a central element of policy was only designed to piss everyone off.

Iraq was "one unanticipated challenge after another"

You could be forgiven for believing that we’d never done any nation building before Iraq, yet it was "one unanticipated challenge after another." You’d think that it was the first time that we had made an effort to liberate then reconstruct, even though there had been seven previous efforts, six of which were in Muslim states (Haiti was the non-Muslim state).

"Calculated indifference"

There was a "calculated indifference" on the part of the US that excluded a body of knowledge that would have helped. Germany and Japan were politically safe models as they had unambiguous outcomes (as opposed to the ambiguous outcomes of Bosnia and Kosovo) and had nothing to do with Clinton. It was politically unacceptable to say that, ‘we’re going to do Clinton but a little bit better.’

The explicit use of "occupation" in a model based on Germany and Japan was an error as the only "occupation" familiar to Muslims in the Middle East was Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Another issue was the midstream taking away of all aspects of non-military nation building from other units that had handled it for 50 years with varying degrees of success and giving them to DoD which had not done them since 1952. It is a surprise that this exercise in "heroic amateurism" did not fail worse than it did.

Chapter 3: The Second Inaugural Address

The Second Inaugural Address flagged a shift to transformational diplomacy (peacemaking was out) and democratization (which was by then the only rationale left for war). We suffered a growing enemies list. Al Qaeda became Islamic fascists; the GWOT became the Long War and now the Wide War.

US diplomacy isolated the US, not the terrorists, as it:

  • Employed highly polarizing rhetoric and martial terminology
  • Treated Mideast diplomacy as a zero-sum game, a practice which demanded that the US lose every time if we forced locals to choose between the US/Israel and Hamas/Hezbollah/Syria/Iran
  • Used excessive democratization speech, whereas locals wanted other things more than democracy; locals saw their religion and their nationalism, their sectarian culture as higher priorities than democracy
  • Gave democracy a bad name by associating with it with dodgy enterprises such as Iraq

The US positioned itself on the wrong side of issues that locals cared most about, issues that primarily involved:

  • Muslims and non-Muslims
  • Occupiers and non-occupiers

Most of the terrorists are in states that we don’t intend to invade: Pakistan, UK, Germany and Saudi Arabia. As it is not a war in those terms we need to replace inexact terminology:

  • Find new narrative with more precise terminology and analysis
  • Greater discretion in choosing our enemies
  • Craft message for both an internal and external constituency
  • Return to traditional diplomacy as opposed to transformational diplomacy

The central front of the GWOT is Pakistan, not Iraq. As this front is not bombable, we should stop thinking of it as a war. We don’t need to invade Pakistan but rather invest hundreds of millions of dollars in their educational system.

Muslim groups are mostly indigenous, mostly nationalistic. Al Qaeda is a parasite on these groups which couldn’t care less about a new Caliphate. In Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo (notably the KLA), the US supported the proper group regardless of ideology. As a result, al Qaeda was marginalized in Bosnia and Kosovo. We need to choose our enemies and friends based on you national aims, instead of letting al Qaeda chose them by which ever side they’ve joined

Stabilization and security must precede democratization, and that requires dealing with one’s enemies. In Bosnia and Kosovo, we had to engage those who were most responsible for genocide, Milosevic and Tuchman, giving them a seat at the negotiating table, so that we could move towards stabilization. Iraq cannot be held together unless its neighbors cooperate no more than could Bosnia or Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the US helped broker an agreement between the four states, Russia, India, Iran and Pakistan, that had been tearing Afghanistan apart for twenty years.

We need to talk less about war and more about peace, talk to both our enemies and our friends, show more nuance and less certainty, more sophistication and less simplicity, and more co-option than coercion.

Part 2: Charting Israel's disengagement from the US: Daniel Levy’s commentary on Dobbins

U.S. Policy Toward the Middle East
New America Foundation, American Strategy Program
Washington, District of Columbia (United States)
ID: 193995 - 08/24/2006 - 1:31 - $29.95

Quit the Canard That American Policy Advances Israeli Security
Daniel Levy
The Forward
August 25, 2006
Mirror at NAF

Illusion and Reality
The violence in the Middle East shows the negative consequences of the administration’s contempt for engagement. But the tough talk has failed.
By Flynt Leverett
The American Prospect, Volume 17, Issue 9
Issue Date: 09.12.06

Moral Quagmire
By Stirling Newberry
TPM Café/Coffee House
Aug 19, 2006 -- 11:52:18 AM EST

Moral clarity in the Mideast
James Dobbins
International Herald Tribune
Published: August 13, 2006

In the Wake of War: Improving U.S. Post-Conflict Capabilities
Chairs: Samuel R. Berger, Brent Scowcroft
Directors: William L. Nash, General John W. Vessey, Mona K. Sutphen
Council on Foreign Relations Press
ISBN 0-87609-346-2
September 2005

What to Do in Iraq: A Roundtable
Larry Diamond, James Dobbins, Chaim Kaufmann, Leslie H. Gelb, and Stephen Biddle
Foreign Affairs
July/August 2006

Unfinished Country
Anchor Interview Transcript
Bill Moyers' interview of James Dobbins on Haiti
Wide Angle
August 23, 2005

The US and UN Ways of Nation-Building
By James Dobbins
UNA-USA Policy Brief, No. 8
1 June 2005
(UNA-USA - United Nations Association of the United States of America)

The U.S. and U.N. Roles in Nation-Building: A Comparative Analysis
Brookings Briefing
Moderator: James B. Steinberg; Panelists: James Dobbins, Francis Fukuyama, Major General Bill Nash (Ret.), Susan E. Rice
The Brookings Institution
February 18, 2005

Nation-Building: Germany, Japan, Bosnia, Kosovo
Lessons Learned
An excerpt from "America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq" by James Dobbins, John G. McGinn, Keith Crane, Seth G. Jones, Rollie Lal, Andrew Rathmell, Rachel Swanger, and Anga Timilsina
Feb 2005

Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War
James Dobbins
Foreign Affairs
January/February 2005

Iraq: The Logic of Disengagement
Edward N. Luttwak
Foreign Affairs
January/February 2005

Iraq: One Year After
Thomas R. Pickering, James R. Schlesinger, James Dobbins
Council on Foreign Relations
March 9, 2004

Nation-Building 101
An Interview with James Dobbins
Wen Stephenson
Sept. 26, 2003

America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq, by James Dobbins
Reviewed by Douglas Porch
Strategic Insights, Volume III, Issue 2 (February 2004)
Center for Contemporary Conflict, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey

America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq, by James Dobbins, et al. Santa Monica, California: Rand, 2003. ISBN: 0-8330-3460-X. Pp. xxix, 244.

NATION-BUILDING: The Inescapable Responsibility of the World's Only Superpower
By James Dobbins
RAND Review
Summer 2003

America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq
By: James Dobbins, John G. McGinn, Keith Crane, Seth G. Jones, Rollie Lal, Andrew Rathmell, Rachel M. Swanger, Anga Timilsina
ISBN: 0-8330-3460-X
July 2003

Gordon Housworth

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