James F. Dobbins, an American diplomat whose career took him to Haiti, Afghanistan and many points in between, and who was respected as a peace negotiator and widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on nation-building, died Monday in Washington. She was 81 years old.
His sons, Christian and Colin Dobbins, said he died in hospital from complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Until the 1990s, Dobbins was best known for his behind-the-scenes role in some of the Cold War’s most sensitive transatlantic issues, including trade negotiations and the movement of nuclear weapons across the Western European arena.
His trajectory changed in 1993 when he was asked to oversee the US withdrawal from Somalia. Although he had no prior experience in the field or in Africa, he was later tasked with overseeing all peacekeeping matters at the State Department, including the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.
A stint as special envoy to Haiti followed, during the US intervention in 1994 and 1995. In the late 1990s he was assigned to post-war Bosnia and Kosovo.
Each time, Mr. Dobbins has deepened his experience with rebuilding war-torn societies, developing a vision of an immensely complex foreign policy conundrum. He managed the diplomatic side of NATO’s air campaign in Kosovo in 1999 and then helped manage peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts.
The United States had already rebuilt nations, most notably postwar Germany and Japan. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the old world order, nation-building moved to the top of the foreign policy agenda.
Mr. Dobbins became its principal practitioner. He drew on previous American experiences, but also recognized that the hardships the country faced at the turn of the millennium—simultaneously involving security, economic, and political challenges—were different from those it faced after World War II.
“He had an insatiable appetite for understanding the concepts, the theory at hand,” Douglas Lute, the former US ambassador to NATO, said in a telephone interview. “And he combined that with a very sharp instinct on how to actually do it in the field.”
He advised pragmatism, warning that there is no single solution to every country’s problems. However, he has repeatedly stressed the need to establish security first, after which, he said, political and economic redevelopment could proceed safely.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Dobbins was chosen as envoy for the anti-Taliban opposition and then for the new government. On a rainy day in Kabul in December 2001, he proudly presided over the reopening of the US embassy, which had been closed in 1989.
« We are here and we are here to stay, » he said.
Despite playing that central role, he was later critical of government efforts in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, especially after he retired in 2002 when he became director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan tanker company.
« His quality of analysis was not compromised by his personal involvement, » said Meghan O’Sullivan, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs. « He was able to distinguish his hopes of him from his analysis of him, which is something a lot of people in the arena struggle to do. »
A prolific author, Mr. Dobbins wrote a series of how-to guides for nation-building, then drew on those insights in speeches, opinion pieces, and long essays to show that efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq were failing.
“In a country like Iraq where the governmental structure has collapsed, the first priority is to establish public safety,” he wrote in the New York Times in 2004. “The Pentagon has focused more on hardware than software, on improving of infrastructure rather than on social structures.
Mr. Dobbins has never been more well known among the public as contemporaries like Richard C. Holbrooke or Zalmay Khalilzad, who also served as special representatives in Afghanistan. But he was widely regarded as one of the best foreign service officers of his generation.
« He wasn’t the kind of political appointee a friend of the president had, » Robert B. Zoellick, a former deputy secretary of state who got to know Dobbins in Europe, said by phone. « Jim was the kind of committed government official who is critical to America’s success and standing in the world. »
James Francis Dobbins Jr. was born May 3, 1942 in Brooklyn. His father was a Veterans Administration attorney; his mother, Agnes (Bent) Dobbins, was a housewife.
When Jim was 10, his family moved to Manila, where his father had been transferred. That experience, which involved weeks of first-class travel by train and ship, left him with a lifelong love of living abroad.
He returned to Washington for his senior year of high school, then enrolled in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. During his senior year there, in 1963, he passed the Foreign Service exam, but had already joined the Navy.
After graduation, he served three years aboard the Bon Homme Richard, an aircraft carrier in support of America’s growing involvement in Vietnam. She was on duty during the critical junctures of the engagement with North Vietnamese forces near her ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, which effectively opened the Vietnam War.
Mr. Dobbins joined the Foreign Service after his discharge and was assigned to Paris. At a party given by the Marine Detachment of the US Embassy, he met a Norwegian model, Toril Kleivdal. They were married in 1968. She died in 2012.
Along with his sons, Mr. Dobbins is survived by his brothers, Peter and Andrew; his sisters, Victoria Dobbins and Elizabeth Fuller; and two grandchildren.
In the 1970s and 1980s Dobbins held a series of diplomatic posts of increasing importance, including that of ambassador to the European Community, the forerunner of the European Union.
His career nearly derailed in the late 1990s when two congressmen accused him of lying under oath while testifying about Haitian death squads. An internal investigation cleared him of the lie, but concluded that he had been « reckless » in his choice of words.
Mr Dobbins said the investigation’s final report had been edited to please politicians. He appealed and in March 2001 received what he called « a substantial financial settlement. »
The incident did not have a long-term impact on his career, although he believed it ruled out the possibility of being nominated to a confirmed Senate position.
After a decade at RAND, Dobbins returned to government service in 2013 as US Special Representative for Iraq and Pakistan.
« He is simply one of the finest foreign service officers of his generation, a man who has dedicated his life to public service and has earned respect throughout the region and in Washington, » said John Kerry, then secretary of state, when Mr Dobbins resigned a year later.
He returned to RAND, where he continued to produce analyzes and reports. He was still there a few weeks before his death when, despite his advanced illness, he was one of the authors of a report on the reconstruction of Ukraine.