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For these and many

more prominent person-

alities that appear in the

narrative, Dobbins pro-

vides quick, incisive por-

traits. Sonnenfeldt was

“a more pragmatic and

steady version of his

chief.” General Vernon

Walters, ambassador to Germany

during reunification, “had remarkably

sharp insights but no capacity to explain

how he had arrived at them.”

President Bill Clinton treated his staff

“as if we were potential donors and he

was running for a third term,” but Vice

President Al Gore “treated subordinates

curtly and even discourteously. ... He

was also the worst public speaker I ever

encountered.” These sketches are among

the book’s great pleasures.

European affairs occupied Dobbins

from his entry into the Service through

the collapse of the Soviet Union and its

immediate aftermath. Then, through the

odd mix of preparation and serendip-

ity that marks so many Foreign Service

careers, he took up the diplomacy of

nation-building in Somalia, Haiti, the

Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dobbins rose rapidly in the bureaus

of Political-Military and European

Affairs, with tours as deputy chief of

mission in West Germany and appoint-

ment in 1991 as ambassador to the

European Union.

When communist rule collapsed, he

argued (as he notes Sonnenfeldt might

have done) for a U.S. assistance pro-

gram to link Russia and Eastern Europe

to the West in “mutually beneficial

dependency.” His paper on the subject

provoked no response.

The arrival of the Clinton administra-

tion left Dobbins briefly at loose ends—a

Pentagon job fell through when the sec-

Lessons Worth Learning

Foreign Service: Five Decades on the

Frontlines of American Diplomacy

James F. Dobbins, Brookings Institution

Press, 2017, $29.99/hardcover, $20.22/

Kindle, 341 pages.

Reviewed By Harry Kopp

James Dobbins’ stellar career began

in Vietnam and ended in Afghanistan.

His memoir of service spans a period

of ebbing, or squandering, of what had

seemed in his phrase an “inexhaustible

abundance of American power.” It is the

story of a career marked by diplomatic

successes and darkened in its latter

years by frustration.

Dobbins joined the Foreign Service

in 1967, after a stint in the Navy. Many of

his Foreign Service classmates went into

the Civil Operations and Revolutionary

Development Support program in Viet-

nam (known as CORDS), but Dobbins’

Vietnam experience was already behind

him—he had served on a carrier in the

Gulf of Tonkin—and he went instead

to Paris. “If there is a better place to be

young, single and gainfully employed,”

he writes, “I’ve not found it.”

His career really took off, however,

after his marriage to a foreigner forced

his return to Washington. He became an

assistant to Helmut Sonnenfeldt, coun-

selor to the department and Secretary of

State Henry Kissinger’s closest adviser

on Eastern Europe.

Sonnenfeldt was the first of many

mentors and colleagues whom Dobbins

credits for much of his success. Their

names—Bob Blackwill, Rick Burt, Mike

McClarty, Dennis Ross, Strobe Talbott,

Ray Seitz, among others—will resonate

with readers of Dobbins’ generation

(this reviewer is one) but may be unfa-

miliar to others.


retary of Defense was fired—but

his bureaucratic skills were rec-

ognized. He was placed in charge

of interagency groups engaged

first in arranging the withdrawal

of American forces from Somalia,

and then in dealing with a refugee

and political crisis in Haiti.

Haiti embroiled him in domestic

politics. Congressional Republicans

were united in opposition to the admin-

istration’s policies and constantly on

the attack. Representative Dan Burton

(R-Ind.) came to believe that Dobbins

had lied before his subcommittee in

testimony on Haiti, and Senator Jesse

Helms (R-N.C.) announced his intention

to block Dobbins’ appointment to any

position requiring Senate confirmation.

The department, a pushover for congres-

sional bullies, did not defend him.

Dobbins spent several years and a

good deal of money rebutting Burton’s

charge, eventually winning a grievance

and a “sizable financial settlement” from

the department. In the Senate, however,

he remained unconfirmable. State took

him out of consideration for embassies

in Argentina and the Philippines, and

struck his name from a promotion list

that required Senate approval.

With an ambassadorship no longer

a possibility, he became a candidate for

the special assignments that engaged

him in the world’s most difficult trouble

spots for much of the rest of his career.

As he had in Somalia and Haiti, Dob-

bins (with the title of “special adviser to

the president and secretary”) coordi-

nated interagency efforts in Bosnia and

Kosovo, and was deeply involved in

holding allied efforts together, as well.

“Critics,” he writes, “refer dismissively

to the Kosovo campaign as ‘war by com-

mittee,’ as if more unilateral assertion

of American preferences would have