Who Is James Dobbins?

With little comment from conservative media, President Obama last week appointed James Dobbins as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the high-profile job long occupied by the late Richard Holbrooke.

Dobbins is a prominent exponent of the idea that America can live with a nuclear Iran, as well as an opponent of the use of military force against Iran’s nuclear program under any conditions. Whatever the White House might be thinking, the appointment sent a signal to Iran that the military option is pure bluff.

“Obama’s AfPak envoy may embrace Iran” is the lead of today’s Asia Times Online under the byline of MK Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador to Turkey. Writes Bhadrakumar:

The probability is that the United States President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry got around to reading the congressional testimony titled “Negotiating with Iran” given by Ambassador James Dobbins on the Hill on November 7, 2007, while deciding to name him as the new U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The appointment seems odd, the former Indian diplomat explains, because:

Dobbins has been an inveterate critic of Obama’s plan to reduce the US military footprint in Afghanistan. He voiced enthusiastic support for the counterinsurgency strategy [COIN] carried out by General David Petraeus and was sharply critical that the COIN was reduced to mere counterterrorist operation.

One wonders if the Republican establishment declined to object to Dobbins’ appointment because of his COIN credentials.

But there’s an explanation for Obama’s selection, Bhadrakumar adds:

Dobbins’ real credentials lie quite somewhere else than on the kinetic battlefield. Kerry made this clear while announcing the appointment. He said, “He [Dobbins] has deep and longstanding relationships in the region, … Jim will continue building on diplomatic efforts to bring the conflict to a peaceful conclusion, actively engaging with states in the region and the international community.”

Secretary Kerry was referring, evidently, to Dobbins’ “deep and longstanding relationship” with Iran.

As assistant secretary of state for European affairs and general troubleshooter in the George W. Bush administration, Dobbins proposed to jointly train the Afghan army with Iran. As he said in Congressional testimony in 2007:

Iranian participation, under American leadership, in a joint program of this sort would be a breathtaking departure after more than 20 years mutual hostility. It also represented a significant step beyond the quiet diplomatic cooperation we had achieved so far. Clearly, despite having been relegated by President Bush to the “axis of evil”, the Khatami government wanted to deepen its cooperation with Washington, and was prepared to do so in a most overt and public manner.

This was too much for the Bush administration, and Dobbins de-camped from the State Department for a senior job at the RAND Corporation.

There, he co-authored a 2011 monograph titled: “Coping with a Nuclearizing Iran.” In effect, the Dobbins report proposes a don’t ask, don’t tell approach to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Its summary states:

It is not inevitable that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons or even that it will gain the capacity to quickly produce them. U.S. and even Israeli analysts continually push their estimates for such an event further into the future. Nevertheless, absent a change in Iranian policy, it is reasonable to assume that, some time in the coming decade, Iran will acquire such a capability. Most recent scholarly studies have also focused on how to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Other, less voluminous writing looks at what to do after Iran becomes a nuclear power. What has so far been lacking is a policy framework for dealing with Iran before, after, and, indeed, during its crossing of the nuclear threshold. This monograph attempts to fill that gap by providing a midterm strategy for dealing with Iran that neither begins nor ends at the point at which Tehran acquires a nuclear weapon capability. It proposes an approach that neither acquiesces to a nuclear-armed Iran nor refuses to admit the possibility — indeed, the likelihood — of this occurring.

What this doublespeak actually means becomes clear in the body of the report:

The closer Iran moves toward testing and deploying nuclear weapons, the more negative the consequences for regional and global security. Uncertainty regarding Iran’s actual capacity — although itself a source of anxiety — would be less provocative than certainty about such a capacity. The region has lived with an unacknowledged Israeli nuclear arsenal since the late 1960s and could conceivably do the same with a similarly discreet Iranian capacity.

To equate Israel’s nuclear capability and Iran’s attempt to acquire a nuclear capability is monstrously wrong. We have already seen in the case of North Korea what a rogue nuclear power can do once it acquires nuclear weapons.

Dobbins has argued forcefully and frequently against the use of military force against Iran under any circumstances. In a Nov. 16, 2011, article for US News and World Report titled “An Attack Would Only Strengthen Iran’s Influence,” Dobbins wrote:

In the aftermath of an attack, Iran would likely move its program entirely into to clandestine or heavily protected sites. The global coalition the United States has built in opposition to the Iranian program would be seriously strained. Further international sanctions would be difficult, maybe impossible to achieve. Some nations could become more willing to assist the Iranian program, or at least less willing to police those who might.

Tehran will read this high-profile appointment as proof that the Obama administration never will use military force to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons — and that Washington will do nothing as long as Tehran maintains a policy of nuclear ambiguity. At best, the Obama administration has displayed incompetence in the extreme. At worst, it has given Iran a green light to become a nuclear power.