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September 20, 2007

Jim Dobbins Is Really Smart
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I went to an excellent panel today on Iraq at the Cato Institute (Actually much more fair and balanced than the Brookings panel).  Marc Lynch already posted on the panel.  With all due respect to Marc, I agree with him that Ambassador Jim Dobbins was the most fascinating speaker (Although Marc was great to).  Dobbins knows a little bit about fixing messes, having been the Clinton administration's Special Envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo and the Bush administration's first Special Envoy for Afghanistan. 

Dobbins argued that in every case of trying to fix a failed state the neighbors play a critical role.  They have serious national interests because they are the ones who have to deal with the refugees, violence, crime, economic shocks and all the other wonderful things that happen as a result of a total meltdown on your border.  They simply are not going to sit on the sidelines. 

All of the neighbors have an interest in maintaining stability.  To do this they search for proxies who will carry out their agenda.  Paradoxically, this proxy strategy only ends up exacerbating the situation by strengthening various warring parties and creating greater potential for broader regional conflict. The only way around this, is to create a regional dialogue that forces all the neighbors to come together and coordinate their strategies.  Instead of a zero sum game they should be working towards the same greater goal of keeping Iraq from totally falling apart. 

A regional working group is not a new idea, but I’ve always wondered if the whole diplomacy angle was just a way to make everyone feel better without actually having a substantial impact on the ground.  Dobbins clearly explained why it is just so important. 

Dobbins also pointed out that there is no one in the U.S. government who is currently playing this role.  Crocker doesn’t have the authority to talk to the neighbors, except through their representatives in Iraq.  Most of the neighbors don’t have a large diplomatic presence in the country and even if they did, these conversations need to happen at a more senior level. 

Clearly, we need a special envoy to the region whose job is to coordinate the various neighbors and get them all to sit down and talk.  My choice would be Jim Dobbins.

Update:  Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) are introducing an amendment intended to promote a diplomatic surge.  It addresses much of what Dobbins talked about yesterday.   


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We do have a bit of an issue with our most senior State Department official not being especially able and our ablest diplomats not being senior enough.

It's not realistic to expect an Ambassador to a war-torn country like Iraq to supervise a regional diplomatic offensive anyway. Nor, frankly, would a special envoy really be the best means of approaching such an undertaking, especially in this administration. The person coordinating a diplomatic initiative would have to be able to speak, and be seen in the region to speak, for the United States -- which means he would have to either have a direct channel into the White House or explicit delegation of authority from the White House to be the voice of America's official position on the issues under negotiation. And he or she would have to be staffed, extensively, for an effort that could last many months.

Negroponte could do it. He's familiar with the region, has a long record as a diplomat in difficult situations, and as Deputy Secretary has enough rank to get a hearing from most of the people he would need to talk to. He'd need, of course, a grant of much more authority for a diplomatic initiative than the White House would likely be willing to give him. This might this whole discussion moot.

It might be as well to say what everyone believes -- the one thing that cannot be on the table is undertaking any kind of serious diplomatic initiative and expecting Secretary Rice to run it. This was the one thing about the Baker-Hamilton Report last December that had me completely flummoxed. Baker knew as well as anyone Rice's limitations as a diplomat -- why did his commission make such heavy weather about a regional diplomatic offensive without taking any account of who would have to lead it? I don't think the stalemate within the White House over whether even to consider a regional diplomatic initiative is close to resolution anyway, but if it is Rice will have to be worked around somehow.

Is there any point, at this stage, in attempting a regional consensus? Is America ready?

“The passion of the people is necessary to endure the sacrifices inherent in war. Regardless of the system of government, the people supply the blood and treasure required to prosecute war. The statesman must stir these passions to a level commensurate with the popular sacrifices required”

Paul Yingling used this quote in his ‘A failure in generalship’ and it is as true here as anywhere else. The US has skin in the game and the administration has, in typically Regan/Bush style, painted the players in binary black and white. This makes it that much harder to sell any solution that rehabilitates the ‘baddies’ into a more nuanced grey. The administration’s key players have sunk so much political capital into the Iraqi adventure that any realistic solution involving Iraq as an Islamic state with Israel/US as the bad guys and Iran, Syria, Hamas etc as key regional friends is never going to fly - at least not in Washington. The stalemate is similar to the Palestinian one; you can’t get a solution without the US as a broker and as no body, outside the US & Israel, views the US as unbiased there will be no solution. In Iraq any solution that the Iraqis and their neighbours might come up with, with the mediation of a truly neutral broker, would be torpedoed by the US as unacceptable to its domestic audience. After the Presidential elections – and then only if the Democrats gain dominance – will it be possible to sell the concept of ‘bad debt right off’ and blame the last administration.

I posted the following comment on Dr. Lynch's post about this panel and wanted to share it here as well. I agree with him that this post captures the essence of Amb. Dobbin's points quite well.

here is the comment:

Dr. Lynch - I also thoroughly enjoyed the conference and it was a pleasure to meet you in person. I too was rather surprised by the level of agreement on the panel including David's comments though I felt he was spinning an overly optomistic version of the future as Weekly Standard writers are wont to do.

As you indicated, Amb. Dobbins did indeed have the most salient comments. Here are a few quotes of his that I want to mention in particular:

talking about the important lessons of counter-insurgency doctrine he said: "you can not stabilize a 'failing' state if the neighbors don't want you to"

and... "if there is no plan - each state will back a local group"

and what I felt was the probably the most astute observation and analysis of our disastrous circumstances in the ME currently:

" We can either stabilize Iraq OR contain Iran - We can't do both"

I think if that particular piece of analysis was truly understood in the halls of congress and in policy circles around town - we would be discussing far different (and actually productive) policy options.


I agree. Dobbins comment about stabilizing Iraq or containing Iraq, but not being able to do both, struck me as a powerful point.

"I’ve always wondered if the whole diplomacy angle was just a way to make everyone feel better without actually having a substantial impact on the ground. Dobbins clearly explained why it is just so important."

Inportant it may be, but I'd be more interested in hearing him explain why any of the factions in Iran's convuluted power structure (almost as convoluted as the US one) would want to cooperate in such an effort.

To say Tehran wants stabilty in Iraq is simply to say that all of the ruling factions would like, for obvious reasons, to see the current, friendly Shia-Kurdish alliance remain in power in Baghdad -- a cause already being advanced by the Bush Administration and the U.S. Army. Beyond that, it's hard to imagine that the Iranians aren't perfectly happy to see the Americans bogged down in Iraq forever, or at least until they have finished developing their nuclear deterrent.

As Lynch puts it, quoting Dobbins, tHe US choice is between stabilizing Iraq and containing Iran. It can't do both. From Tehran's point of view, what's not to like about that?

"All of the neighbors have an interest in maintaining stability. "

Uh, no. They have interests that may or may not include stability. Iran, for instance, wants to project power in Lebanon and is very deliberately destabilizing that regional neighbor. Similar situations existed in Latin America when the Communists were trying to project power.

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I would like to say my impression is that while the American efforts to cooperate with Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Anbar has many cheerleaders among the political class here, the efforts themselves were almost entirely made by military officers on the ground in Anbar.These are not the people influencing policy with respect to diplomatic contacts with Syria and Iran. Actually, I suspect that some of the Bush administration's strongest champions of cooperating with the Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar would have resisted the idea bitterly had they known in advance that it was being pursued.

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