How I Got Here: James Dobbins

A conversation with
James Dobbins

Feb 3, 2021

Feb 3, 2021 • by James Dobbins

James Dobbins

  • U.S. Ambassador to the European Community
  • U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe
  • Special Envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Senior Fellow, RAND Corporation

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

We went abroad when I was ten years old [in 1952]. My father was a lawyer for the Veterans Administration, and the largest VA office in the world then was in Manila, because of all the Filipinos who had fought in World War II. We lived there for five years, and I liked the life. We had a swimming pool, a tennis court, five servants—my father was a GS-10 at the time. When I came back to the United States, entering the last year of high school, the mother of a friend asked me that question—“What do you want to do?” I said, “Something with travel.” She said, “Well, Georgetown has a Foreign Service school. Why don’t you apply there?” I did and was accepted. And afterward, joining the Foreign Service seemed a logical thing to do.

What was it like coming back to the United States after having been in the Philippines? 

It wasn’t a shock, because we had come back every couple of years on home leave, but it was certainly very different. A couple of months after we arrived, my mother told me I had to go get a job to help contribute. Life for civil servants in suburban Washington was not like in the Philippines. 

What job did you get? 

I sold magazines door-to-door. Getting people to buy things they didn’t want was good training for diplomacy.

What was Georgetown like? 

I chose the School of Foreign Service over Arts and Sciences so I wouldn’t have to take math, Latin, and Greek and would only have to take two years of English, theology, and philosophy. Instead, I took history, economics, and government. Those struck me as more interesting, and the instruction was quite relevant. It was excellent preparation, which I leaned on considerably later in life. [Carroll] Quigley’s Development of Civilization class, ranging from ancient Egypt and Assyria to the modern age, was a highlight. Strong courses in international and constitutional law gave me such a good grounding in those subjects that I was able to argue confidently with lawyers decades later, just from those courses.

What came next?

At this point, the Vietnam War was just starting, and I assumed I would be drafted. I took exams for the Foreign Service and Naval OCS [Officer Candidate School] and passed both. The Foreign Service said they’d wait, so I went from Georgetown to the navy, and then from the navy to the Foreign Service. I didn’t have to look for another job until I turned 60.

What was the navy like? 

The four months of OCS was probably the most difficult, challenging time of my life—as it was designed to be. They flunked a third of the class just to encourage the others. A student committed suicide while I was there, and that was a fairly frequent occurrence.

That sounds like An Officer and a Gentleman.

It was. Except it was not physical. There was no judo. The only physical thing we did was a lot of marching, which was not very relevant to the navy but a way of regimenting us. The stress was intentional, because they were trying to turn soft, undisciplined 20-year-olds into officers. And it worked.

Where were you posted after? 

I was on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific for three years, ensign to start, then lieutenant JG [junior grade] in the last year and a half. Again, it was eye-opening; it was rewarding. I don’t regret it. It was 3,000 people, which is small for today’s carriers but still a lot. You were in a small city. And you got increasing responsibility, first as a junior officer of the watch, then a junior officer of the deck, and then an officer of the deck. By that point, you were actually in command of the ship when the captain wasn’t physically on the bridge, which was about a third of the day. And in command of the other four to five ships of the task force.

Did you ever feel nervous about exercising that responsibility? 

No, but I felt the weight of it. You could wreck the ship, and the captain’s career, and endanger lives. This was wartime, off the coast of North Vietnam. You were alone, in the dark, and in charge. It was a lot for a 22- or 23-year-old.

Did you think about staying in the navy? 

The navy tried to induce me to stay a bit longer, offering me a year and a half in Hawaii if I would extend my tour. They wouldn’t tell me what for exactly, but it was with the Naval Security Group, which handled signals intelligence. But I had already passed the Foreign Service exam and didn’t want to lose my position, so I chose the Foreign Service, and I chose wisely. But if I hadn’t already known where I was going, I might have stayed.

What was it like moving from the navy to the Foreign Service? 

They’re both large organizations where you start at the bottom and work your way up. The substance of a diplomat’s job was different; it was more intellectual. But the adjustment wasn’t difficult.

What was your first posting? 

I was very fortunate. We had a large class, about 50 people entering my year. You don’t know where you’re going until the last day. There’s a ceremony where you go up and instead of getting a diploma, you get your orders. About every third person in my class was going to Vietnam. I was told I was going to Paris. And there was sort of a gasp in the room, because that was certainly the first prize. I found out many years later that the selection was made by an ex-naval officer; I think that was probably why I went to Paris rather than Saigon.

Was your class socially and demographically homogeneous? 

The Foreign Service had been recruiting more broadly than the Ivy League by that point, so they came from a pretty broad social strata. A number of them had been in the Peace Corps, but one or two had been in the military, like me; a lot of others were straight out of college. Very few had gone to graduate school. It’s completely different now. At that time, you couldn’t apply to the Foreign Service if you were over something like 27 or 28. They didn’t want old people; they wanted to take somebody and mold them from the beginning. There were a few women. I don’t recall any minorities.

Did the Foreign Service have an equivalent to OCS, where they broke you down and remade you? 

No. It was an up-or-out system, in the sense that if you didn’t get promoted, after a time you would be forced out. So there was a bit of stress in that. But it wasn’t intense, and it didn’t start early. Going through OCS was like pledging a fraternity, really. I had pledged a fraternity at Georgetown, and it was the same kind of thing—hazing, breaking down of personality, enforced humility. The Foreign Service didn’t do that.

What did you do in Paris? 

First tour officers were usually assigned on rotations across the embassy—six months each in the consular section, the political section, the economic section, the administrative section. I showed such little aptitude for the consular section that I was moved out of it very rapidly and became a special assistant to the ambassador to the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], following him around, reporting on his meetings, sifting his mail. That was a good exercise for a young officer. Then the Vietnam peace talks began.

Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance were sent to Paris to open negotiations, and I was selected to be a junior officer on Harriman’s staff. The other junior officers on the delegation were Dick Holbrooke and John Negroponte. We were all about the same age, but they had come into the service directly from school, and I had gone through the navy, so they were more senior and had served in Saigon. Philip Habib was the senior FSO in the group.

That sounds like an all-star roster of American diplomacy.

It was. And I monitored all incoming and outgoing traffic, so it was very instructive. I drew on those experiences later in my career. One lesson that stuck with me was from Averell Harriman. The Johnson administration was keen to announce progress in the Vietnam negotiations to help Hubert Humphrey get elected. Nixon didn’t want this, and Kissinger, as his emissary, had visited us several times to keep track of what was happening. Just before the election, the Nixon camp reached out to South Vietnamese President [Nguyen Van] Thieu to discourage him from accepting Johnson’s proposal for a bombing halt and enlargement of the negotiations to include his government and the Viet Cong, at least for a few weeks. I remember sitting with Harriman and someone asking him how Thieu could possibly withstand the pressure from the White House, given his overwhelming dependence on the United States. And Harriman said, “When you’re dealing with a client state, there’s one counterthreat that can always trump anything you try. They can threaten to collapse.” 

Then there was May ’68. After being in negotiations with the North Vietnamese in the day, in the evenings I would wander off to the Sorbonne or the Odéon and stand behind the barricades and listen to the speeches and experience the student revolt. The next year, I became special assistant to Ambassador Sargent Shriver—his assistant for youth affairs.

Did you see the disruptions of ’68 coming? 

No. I hadn’t been paying attention to French politics. The general strike was remarkably effective—there was no gasoline, no cars on the road, everything shut down for several weeks. [French President Charles] de Gaulle returned from [West] Germany, called a national election, and went on TV and called for a massive demonstration. Now the streets were beginning to fill up with the bourgeois silent majority. Negroponte and I saw all this from a window of the embassy, and he said, “You’re very fortunate to be here, to watch the collapse of a regime.” It didn’t collapse. But it came close and the experience was fascinating.

What came after Paris? 

I had applied for Japanese-language training. Japan was buying half of California and was an economic competitor like China today.

Wait, in the late ’60s? That’s what it felt like in the ’80s. 

They were already coming. But it wasn’t to be. I spent one day in Japanese-language training, and then they pulled me out because I had just married a Norwegian. The rule then was that your wife had to stay in the United States long enough to become an American citizen before going abroad, so she would be covered by diplomatic immunity. And the Japanese-language training was in Japan. So they kept me in Washington, where I became special assistant to the director of the Policy Planning Staff.

Was it as prestigious in your day as it had been in George Kennan’s?

It was much bigger and had been given broader responsibility, but it was not as influential. And this was during the Bill Rogers years at the State Department, when it was overshadowed by Henry Kissinger’s NSC [National Security Council]. So we spent most of our time running around in circles that Kissinger designed to keep us occupied.

Did you understand what was going on, and did that create low morale at State?

I was perfectly happy running in circles, because I was learning a lot. All the other people on the staff were quite senior, and none of them wanted to do anything except their pigeonhole. So I had to take their work and draw on it to write memos for the secretary or the White House. I learned a lot about policy, even though it was largely make-work.

Reading about the Nixon administration, it seems a bit crazy. Did it feel that way at the time?

Before Trump, the Reagan administration was the craziest, because, like Trump, Reagan brought in an element of the party that had never been in power before. When that happens, the administration gets filled with people who have no idea what they’re doing or who have outrageous ideas. The Nixon administration wasn’t anything like that. It was pretty disciplined. It was dominated by Vietnam. And there was a good deal of anxiety and unhappiness among the staff because of that.

Did you have strong thoughts about Vietnam? 

It wasn’t until I read the Pentagon Papers that I really understood just how dubious some of the early policy positions taken were.

You hadn’t realized up until that point? Reading the Pentagon Papers was a revelation? 

Yes. When I was working on the Vietnam negotiations, I thought they were the right thing to do. I read deeply in the big piles of briefing books, full of top-secret stuff. But we were mostly looking forward. 

What came after Policy Planning? 

I got offered a chance to go back to France, which I jumped at: vice consul in Strasbourg. It was great. We had our first child there. We had a nice apartment literally above my office. I spent a lot of time cruising around Alsace. The Council of Europe was there, and one of my jobs was to monitor it. I wrote reports on the debates about European integration, which I’m sure no one in Washington read. 

I developed a capacity to listen and write a brief memo summarizing a long, divergent discussion. The European bureau of the department staged a contest for best think piece memo. I won, but was told I had to cut a line in which I recommended that the U.S. stop opposing the French nuclear force and actually help them [the French] build it, as we had helped the British. When I asked why I had to take it out, they said, “We can’t tell you,” so I refused. (I later learned it was because we had decided to do just that a few months earlier and it was a big secret.) After the memo was circulated, I got a call saying the new ambassador to the UN, John Scali, was looking for a speechwriter and wanted me to interview for the job. So we ended up moving from Strasbourg to New York.

What was the UN like? 

It was interesting. We had several crises at the time—the Yom Kippur War, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Arab oil embargo, a global recession. And we had Yasir Arafat’s visit, during which they closed down the Long Island Expressway at rush hour, both morning and afternoon to get him to and from the airport. Imagine how popular that made Arafat. 

I was mostly observing and learning. Writing speeches, being a sieve for my boss. I would decide what cables and intelligence he saw and relay instructions to people. Scali was an ABC newsman who had gone into the White House media office. His handling of Nixon’s visit to China was a great success, and as a result he was made ambassador to the UN. I would be in his office and he’d be chatting with his pals in the White House, people like Chuck Colson and others who ultimately went to jail. If Scali didn’t like his instructions from Rogers’s State Department, he could call Kissinger and get them changed (or Kissinger could call him to change them). After Nixon resigned, life became more difficult, because Kissinger became his sole boss.

Were you shocked by Watergate? 

“Shocked” would be too strong a word. It was a drama that was fascinating. It didn’t impinge on me directly.

What came after the UN? 

I came to Washington to work for Hal Sonnenfeldt, who was Kissinger’s top aide at the State Department. At this point, Kissinger was both secretary of state and national security adviser, so we worked closely with the NSC. We actually had two forms of stationary in our office, White House and State, and would send memos from both—because Kissinger would spend the morning in the White House and the afternoon at State and do much of the same work from both places.

This would have been the opposite of your previous situation—now you were working directly for the highest decision-makers of all, with no bureaucracy above you. What was that like? 

It was fun! Sonnenfeldt was a very difficult boss but also very rewarding. He was very powerful. Kissinger had two main deputies. Joe Sisco was undersecretary for political affairs, and he did the Third World. Sonnenfeldt did the First and Second Worlds—Europe, the Soviet Union, East-West relations, arms control. This was what Kissinger really cared about. And Sonnenfeldt was so similar, he was called “Kissinger’s Kissinger.” They were both German Jews who had fled Nazi persecution, become American citizens, served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the occupation, and gotten Ph.D.s and become national security professionals. But they were different in personality. Kissinger was much more egocentric and obsessive and mercurial. Sonnenfeldt was steadier. 

He was under merciless pressure from Kissinger, who would blow up, yell at his subordinates. Kissinger was a terrible boss, and Sonnenfeldt would come back and relay it—so we were under a lot of pressure, too. But we had amazing latitude and power. Kissinger would not look at anything about half the world if it didn’t have Sonnenfeldt’s name on it. Everything sent to him from the relevant bureaus in the department would come to us first, and Sonnenfeldt would attach a cover note summarizing the proposal and giving his own recommendation. We cleared all cables going out from the bureaus, as well. And Sonnenfeldt didn’t want anything delayed—so when he wasn’t there, we were supposed to pretend he was and keep things moving. We had essentially carte blanche.

So it was like being the night officer on the aircraft carrier.

It was. I signed his name hundreds of times. I’d write the memo, sign it as Sonnenfeldt—not “JFD for Hal Sonnenfeldt,” but “Sonnenfeldt”—and send it. And he never once came back and said, “I would have said it a little differently.”

Had you learned the trade enough by this point to be self-confident in your exercise of power? 

I was a little startled at first by the degree of latitude, and a few of the issues were new to me. On the day of my arrival, the officers who were doing the CSCE [Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe] negotiations, which led to the Helsinki Final Act, came to me for guidance. Kissinger was negotiating directly with [Soviet Ambassador Anatoly] Dobrynin, without telling the bureaucracy. So we knew things the bureaus didn’t. They’d come up with instructions, and we’d make sure they were consistent with what Kissinger was actually saying. If they were inconsistent, we’d have to order the instructions rewritten, without telling them why. That happened to me just after I started. A negotiation that had been going on for two years was reaching a critical moment, and suddenly people were coming to me asking what to do about it.

Was it hard to keep straight what you could say to whom?

Yes. It’s something you adjust to. There were definitely people in the box and outside, and there were many rings inside. We were in one of the inner rings, although not the most intimate. There were a few people of my generation, like Jerry Bremer, David Gompert, and a couple of junior officers who kept things moving.

Was Kissinger’s reputation for brilliance deserved? 

Yes, but so was his reputation for being outrageously abusive to his staff. I saw him a couple of years ago. We reminisced about Sonnenfeldt and the old days. And as I was leaving, he said, a little plaintively, “I hope I wasn’t too tough on you guys.” I responded, “It was worth it.”

I accompanied Secretary of the Treasury George Shultz to negotiate the first “Economic Summit”  communiqué, at the first meeting of what would become the G-7, because Sonnenfeldt wanted to be in Washington for the final briefing of the president. That was typical of Sonnenfeldt. He didn’t send Tom Enders, the assistant secretary for economic affairs, because that would have lessened his control. So he sent me, who knew absolutely nothing about the topic.

We also set up what was called the Quadripartite Group, composed of the U.S., the U.K., France, and West Germany, which has run the transatlantic alliance ever since. (When Italy became important during the Balkan crises, it became the Quint.) It was very secret at the time, because it would have ruffled the feathers of everybody who wasn’t part of it. For the first few years, meetings were held in people’s homes, not offices. Typical Sonnenfeldt: he said, “This is so secret, we can’t all have note takers. We’ll just have one set of notes, and they will be mine.” And the Europeans went along with it. So I ended up summarizing everybody’s positions for the record. One participant commended me for writing not what he actually had said but what he should have said: “Because my Minister reads these, so thank you very much.”

What happened after that eventful year?

I became the French desk officer. I did that for two years. But by this point, it was the Carter administration, Kissinger and Sonnenfeldt had gone, and I was the only one with some of their  institutional memory. So I kept the European integration portfolios, which drove other offices in the bureau wild. Then I went to London for three years, as the political military officer to Ambassador Kingman Brewster.

That was great. Really an idyllic time. Brewster was very close to Secretary of State Cy Vance—he would stay at Vance’s house when he came to Washington. He discovered, when he was appointed ambassador, that his political section was filled with very senior people—because London was the plum post in the whole Foreign Service, a reward given to people at the end of their careers. Brewster ordered them all cleared out, made the two most junior officers section head and deputy, and told the DCM [deputy chief of mission] to recruit a whole new section filled with young up-and-comers. I was part of that group, and they were amazing. Every person went on to become an ambassador—I was actually the last to do so. Even the person seconded from DOD, who wasn’t even in the Foreign Service, went on to become an ambassador. I was given an honorary membership at the Travellers Club for entertaining. And Brewster gave our section the best housing so we could entertain and have social contacts. Both of the big issues Washington had with the British government were mine: whether to replace Polaris with a new missile system and negotiating what eventually became the two-track INF [intermediate-range nuclear forces] decision. It was a fun time.

What came after London? 

I came back to Washington to work for Rick Burt, which I ended up doing for eight years. Initially, he was director of politico-military affairs, and I was an office director handling European security issues. Then he became assistant secretary for Europe, and I moved up to deputy assistant secretary.

What was the Reagan administration like? 

At first, it was very unnerving. As I said, some of the new people were kind of kooky—at least for those of us with a professional background, a set of expectations about how business was done and what the parameters for legitimate debate were and what was beyond the pale. It was very hard line, wildly irresponsible. Burt was opposed by the other Richard, Richard Perle in the Pentagon, a hard-liner whose nickname was the Prince of Darkness. [Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger had terrible relations first with [Secretary of State Alexander] Haig and then with [Secretary of State] Shultz. The constant battles between State and Defense ended up getting personified in the media through these two relatively junior but colorful assistant secretaries [Burt and Perle].

Was it tough making policy when bureaucratic politics divided everything? 

It was. You had a very weak NSC at the time. Reagan went through six NSC directors. One tried to commit suicide, one went to jail, one left under probably unjustified shadows of financial irregularity, one was completely unqualified. It wasn’t until you got to [Frank] Carlucci and [Colin] Powell at the end, after Iran-contra, that you had real stability. At PM [the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs], we had been responsible for trying to adjudicate the very substantial differences on arms control between the agencies, and it was very difficult. It was easier at EUR [the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs], because there we controlled communications with our embassies. Nobody could send an instruction to anyone in Europe without our approval; that chokehold over policy gave us power. But we still had endless battles on the arms control front. Perle was extremely talented and a lethal debater. He wasn’t personally abusive. He was always charming. But it was a sinister charm.

Our most important accomplishment was the Euromissile deployment, which led eventually to the arms control agreement that abolished all the missiles in question, theirs and ours. Bringing five European countries along to accept road-mobile nuclear missiles that would cruise along their streets, persuading their governments that this was important enough to suffer all the political damage they were taking from millions of protesters in the streets—it was a real exercise in alliance discipline. After that, Rick was named ambassador to [West] Germany, and I went as the deputy chief of mission, and we spent four years together in Bonn.

You’ve done Paris, London, and Germany.

I never served more than 200 miles from Paris in my entire career.

Were people jealous of your postings? 


Did you feel bad about them? 

No. I paid. The last 20 years was Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. I paid for my first 20.

Was Germany as fun as London and Paris? 

It was great. It was the perfect place for a family. Bonn was a small town, lovely, beautiful hills and valleys within sight of our house on the Rhine. You could watch the barges go up and down. Across the river I could see the castle where Siegfried was supposed to have slain the dragon. [West] Germany was the most important country in Europe, and ours was the largest mission in the world. My job was mostly keeping the trains running and managing more than a thousand people.

I chose the spot where Reagan asked Gorbachev to tear down the wall. Reagan was coming to Berlin, and so Burt sent me to Berlin to look at sites, and I said I liked the one facing the Brandenburg Gate. Others thought it was too controversial, but I got it through. I didn’t know what he was going to say though. 

Toward the end of our tour there, Burt’s newly appointed successor, Vernon Walters, said something to the effect that he thought Germany would be reunited during his term of office. Rick and I scratched our heads and said, “What is this guy smoking?” We had no idea that anything like this was coming, nor did anybody else. Vernon Walters was a delightful person but completely unanalytical, and even he could not explain how he arrived at any of these conclusions.

If experts can’t do things like predict when revolutions are going to happen, what good is expertise? 

It helps you navigate the revolution when it happens. By definition, if people understood the revolution was going to happen, it wouldn’t happen. If you could predict them, you could prevent them. It was dependent on what Gorbachev was doing, and it was hard for us to evaluate how seriously to take Gorbachev. 

Where did you go then?

In 1989, I went back to Washington, where I became the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe. I was acting assistant secretary for the first few months, before Ray Seitz was confirmed, and the morning after the wall came down, my secretary rushes into my office breathlessly and says, “The president is on the phone. He wants to talk to you.” The only time in my career that happened. He was interested in some aspect of the diplomacy that followed the wall coming down.

Was that thrilling?

Yes. And like many things in my career, it was luck—I happened to be the most senior person in Washington with deep experience with Germany, in the right position at the right time. Lots of other people knew more than I did, but they were all abroad. I was there. So I got to participate in German unification.

Had you predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union? 

No. We didn’t predict the coup against Gorbachev, and that precipitated the collapse. It might have collapsed anyway, but perhaps not.

This period of turbulence seemed to usher in, just a few years later, a relatively calm post−Cold War era, with a unified Europe and a democratic Russia. Did you expect that?

What we did caused that outcome. You can’t anticipate crises, but you can manage them. And the administration’s management of Gorbachev and the collapse of the Eastern bloc was masterful. George H. W. Bush was the most successful president in foreign policy by far—which should not have been a surprise, given his vast experience beforehand.

What enabled him to be more successful than others? 

He had vast experience. He had a reflective temperament that led to good decisions, combined with determination once his mind was made up. And he ran an orderly administration and relied on good people, such Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft. Most people consider this era the model for national security policymaking, and I agree. It had all the strengths of the Kissinger era without Kissinger.

I stayed in the European bureau for two years and was acting assistant secretary again for the last year, when Yugoslavia fell apart. That was less successful. Bush and Scowcroft decided the country was a loser and didn’t want to touch it. I kept trying to get them to do something and spent the last half year of my time there butting my head against the wall, vainly trying to anticipate and prevent what eventually became a set of civil wars in Yugoslavia. Then I became ambassador to the European Community as it was becoming the European Union.  

So the Gordon Sondland role? 

Yes. I was the last career ambassador to the EU. All of the ones since have been political. And all the ones prior had been career.

As a career diplomat, how do you feel about political-appointee ambassadors? 

They vary. Some bring qualities most career ambassadors are not likely to possess. Can you pull strings and get the secretary of state on the phone? No career ambassador could approach the prestige and connections of, say, Kingman Brewster in London or Mike Mansfield in Japan. But you also get crackpots. I remember one period in the Reagan administration when our Scandinavian ambassadors were all going haywire. The Swedish police came to us and said that they had detected a man climbing out the second-story window of the ambassador’s residence late at night and followed him. It turned out to be the ambassador, on his way to some liaison. Could we please ask him to stop doing that? Then the ambassador to Norway was found serenading an unappreciative young Norwegian girl in the snow outside her house—the latest in a string of scandals. And our ambassador in Copenhagen thought the fact that Denmark had legalized pornography made it OK to have pornographic movies running during diplomatic receptions. All three had to be quietly disciplined or removed. Administrations vary in how much care they take in their political appointments.

Did you ever wish you served in the more autonomous diplomatic corps of other countries?

No. I could hardly imagine a career more fun and rewarding than mine. When you’re the American representative, you’re always the most important person in the room. Well, until the Trump years, anyway. I remember the wife of an ambassador from a smaller country asking me how it felt being under a political appointee. I didn’t tell her what I really thought, which was that I had more power and better access as the number two than her husband, as number one. It was always better to be an American, even if part of the price was you had to serve under some odd political appointees, (which fortunately I never had to do). Moreover, including citizens along with professionals in American diplomacy is a good thing. It helps represent a large and diverse country more effectively. There were only a few true embarrassments; the rest served honorably and became lifelong advocates of what we were doing. It creates an important domestic constituency.

What came next?

The new Clinton team needed a post for [Stuart] Eizenstat. Mine was available, so they gave it to him. I was still on the payroll but didn’t have anything to do, so I persuaded the department to let me go to [the] RAND [Corporation] as a senior fellow, essentially a diplomat in residence at their think tank. I started a project on Bosnia, but soon after it began, I got called back to State to handle our exit from Somalia. After the Black Hawk went down, they realized they needed somebody to negotiate the withdrawal, and so I came back as special coordinator for Somalia for six months or so. Then I worked on Rwanda for a bit, beginning preparations for a peacekeeping force. 

And then I got a call from the deputy secretary saying that the president was considering military intervention in Haiti, and did I want to manage it? I said, “Can I do Rwanda, too?” And they said, “No, we’re doing Haiti, not Rwanda.” So I stopped doing Rwanda and took over coordinating policy on Haiti, under [Deputy Secretary of State] Strobe Talbott’s oversight. 

Haiti had the best-planned exit of any American intervention up to that point. They should clone you.

Well, for a while, they just used me. And personally, I think Haiti was a dubious success, because we had to invade again ten years later.

It’s true that the intervention didn’t work. But the withdrawal did—you got the troops out without leaving a mess behind; you kept the retreat from becoming a rout. 

Haiti was managed better than Somalia partly because we learned from our failures. The Clinton administration did four interventions in eight years—Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo—and each one was managed better than the last, because the same people were doing the same thing and getting better at it. At first, nobody knew what managing an intervention involved, what needed to be done. And once we learned, people would fight about who should do it. OK, so we need to train police. Who should be responsible—State? DOJ? DOD? Where will the money come from? (Arguments in the Situation Room are less about what to do than who will pay for it.) We slowly figured out how to settle those questions in ways that didn’t have to be reopened with each new crisis. We became good at interagency management, alliance management, strategic planning.

What happened after Haiti?

My career was essentially wrecked by [Senator] Jesse Helms.


A Republican congressman named Dan Burton accused me of lying to him in some testimony and forced the State Department inspector general to investigate. I was supposed to become ambassador to Argentina. Since I couldn’t get confirmed while the investigation dragged on, I went to the NSC instead, where I was senior director and special assistant to the president for the Western Hemisphere for three years.

What happened with the investigation?

Sometimes nonpartisan professionals get trapped in partisan politics going on around them. I felt I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I was told the investigator agreed. But the case went up through State, over to Justice, back to State, and ended up with me getting a letter of admonition advising me to be more forthcoming in future testimony. I didn’t like that and appealed it. I won the case and was reinstated in the Foreign Service with compensation for the incorrect decision. In that sense, it was a perfect vindication. But it took five years, and Helms—then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—refused to confirm me for anything. Because of all that, I went to the White House instead of Argentina. And subsequently, I was drawn back into the Balkans when the Kosovo crisis erupted.

I came into the Kosovo planning process just before the bombing campaign started. Since it had taken only a few days for the bombing campaign in Bosnia to work, the administration assumed the one in Kosovo would be short, too. That assumption turned out to be wrong. For 11 weeks, we were in emergency mode, just trying to hold the alliance together. We were confident we’d prevail eventually, just because of the overwhelming power and Serbia’s isolation. But I argued that we needed to supplement the air campaign with the threat of a ground campaign, following through if necessary. We eventually went down that route, and it was at the point where we had the ability to conduct a ground campaign—and also when negotiations with the Russians moved forward—that [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic caved. Then we had to figure out who was going to govern Kosovo. I led the negotiations for the [UN] Security Council resolution that set up the UN administration and authorized the NATO  peacekeeping operation. We are still there, but in very small numbers. The United States hasn’t lost a single person in Bosnia or Kosovo since we intervened more than two decades ago. My definition of success is getting out cleanly and leaving behind a peaceful society. I think both of those cases meet that test.

Did you plan any more interventions?

I was brought back again to do Afghanistan. Toward the end of the Clinton administration, I was appointed assistant secretary for Europe, and [Secretary of State] Colin Powell kept me on for the first six months or so of the Bush administration. I was going to retire then. I was close to 60, had 40 years of service, was making calls to see what kinds of jobs might be available. Then 9/11 occurred, and a few weeks later, I got a call saying Powell wanted me to work with the Afghan opposition, pulling them together so they could form a successor government to the Taliban once Kabul fell. So I did that. After [Hamid] Karzai was inaugurated [as interim president of Afghanistan], I agreed to stay and manage the situation temporarily. I spent four or five months fighting a series of losing battles to get the administration to take Afghanistan seriously, which they wouldn’t. They were already focused on Iraq, thinking it would be easy because of the deceptively easy early successes in Afghanistan.

You are a hard-working, dedicated professional. What keeps you going in the wake of repeated frustrations like that? Our track record in recent interventions is not impressive.

I’ve experienced successes as well as failures. I supported East-West arms control, German unification, the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, the liberation of Eastern Europe, Bosnia and Kosovo. We failed to stop the collapse of Yugoslavia and the first several stages of the conflict but ultimately stepped in to end it. The Somalia debacle came because nobody was paying attention and everybody thought somebody else was in charge. 

What lessons do you draw from all of this? 

One lesson is that all countries are difficult to stabilize, and big ones are much more so. The Balkan operations can provide a model, but not one that can be easily scaled up to apply to countries as big as Iraq or Afghanistan, if only because of the forces required. 

That has important implications for where the United States should intervene. We have learned from UN peacekeeping operations that it is possible to stabilize countries at relatively low cost, but you have to wait for the right opportunity. There are dozens of countries around the world living in peace today because outside troops came in and established security, put together viable governments, and eventually left. You don’t hear about those because they’re successful. But a peacekeeping force is not a universal remedy. It won’t stop aggression, or genocide, or nuclear proliferation. If you want to do those, you have to commit far more resources.

Did you ever come back to Afghanistan?

I came back as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2013. Everybody I encountered looked much younger, except the people I knew, who looked much older.

Was it depressing to see the lack of progress? Was it hard to watch American interventions lose the accumulated wisdom and knowledge that you and others had built up? 

It was frustrating, but on the other hand, it gave me a second career. For 20 years, I became the go-to person to say what we were doing wrong and how to do it right.

What are you proudest of in your career? 

It’s hard to say, because there are so many things I enjoyed. German unification and the whole sequence of events that led to the revolution in Europe—to be part of something that consequential. Kosovo, where I had greater personal responsibility. And I’m quite happy with the studies I’ve done memorializing the lessons of these experiences.

What are your greatest professional regrets? 

I wish I’d answered Dan Burton’s question a little differently. But Burton and Helms actually did me a favor, unintentionally. By blocking the jobs I would have gotten, they kept me available for more interesting ones. If I had gone to Argentina, I wouldn’t have gone to the White House, and then on to the Balkan and Afghan interventions. I wouldn’t have been able to watch the [Clinton] impeachment crisis from within. 

What was that like?

It was fascinating to watch. The White House functioned very well during that period. Very disciplined, very supportive. People were disappointed in the president’s behavior, but they didn’t think it was impeachable. So you had a sense that you were keeping the country on an even keel in a very turbulent period. And the NSC functioned without any political interference.

You’ve had an extraordinary career of public service. What was the driving force behind that?

I never really considered any alternative. My father was in the civil service. I took the Foreign Service and OCS exams as a teenager and spent the next 40 years on set career tracks. And then I had this second career studying and writing about interventions.

Any advice to those starting out? 

Start early. These days, a lot of people go into the Foreign Service in their 30s with multiple graduate degrees. That's useful for a life spent alternately in and out of government. But if you're going to make a career of the Foreign Service, the earlier you start, the better.

This interview has been edited and condensed.