Envoy has long history of rushing to trouble spots

Saturday, November 24, 2001

WASHINGTON -- James Dobbins has spent a career tossed into some of the toughest, most sensitive diplomatic jobs.

Somalia. Haiti. Bosnia. Kosovo. Yugoslavia. And that's just the last eight years.

The diplomat's latest task as President Bush's envoy to anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan is to help forge a power-sharing government to take over the country, long torn by ethnic divisions.

Less than two weeks after he was handed that job on Nov. 6, he helped persuade the northern alliance to participate in U.N.-brokered talks aimed at creating such a government. The meeting will be held Tuesday in Bonn, Germany.

The number of difficult tasks assigned to Dobbins is testimony that Secretary of State Colin Powell and several predecessors have confidence in him. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised him for his work a year ago on the Balkans issue.

Problems with Congress

But Dobbins has had problems with some Republicans in Congress. They remain upset by what they consider misleading testimony in 1995 and 1996, when Dobbins indicated he had not been briefed by the FBI on Haitian death squad involvement in the slaying of a right-wing anti-Aristide lawyer.

Dobbins has denied he intentionally misled Congress.

State's inspector general found he "acted with reckless disregard," but a senior personnel officer cleared him in October 1998. She set aside a reprimand and placed in his file a milder "letter of admonishment" after determining he had been "technically truthful" because he had not received a detailed FBI briefing. She cautioned him to be more careful in future testimony.

Warren Christopher, then the secretary of state, and Anthony Lake, who headed the National Security Council, defended Dobbins, saying his answers to the lawmakers were truthful.

Still, that testimony before House International Relations Committee members put Dobbins on the wrong side of two forceful lawmakers: then-committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., and Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., then chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee and now head of the Government Reform Committee.

'Adamantly opposed'

Their antipathy lasts to this day, and includes opposition to his latest high-profile job.

Burton "is still adamantly opposed to Mr. Dobbins' appointment," Burton spokes-man John Cardarelli said Monday. "He feels that anyone who has misled Congress should not be in a position of such prominence."

The congressman is now writing to Bush saying just that, Cardarelli said, with other members expected to sign onto the letter.

The lawmakers have not criticized Dobbins' resume, which recounts his many forays into trouble spots on behalf of the State Department and the National Security Council.

In 1993, he led the diplomatic end of getting U.S. forces out of Somalia. In 1994, he helped arrange the multilateral intervention in Haiti. Just before the Kosovo conflict erupted in 1999, he became senior envoy for the Balkans and later headed the U.S. delegation to the Kosovo peace talks. From 2000 to this year, he worked to organize international efforts to oust the Milosevic regime from Yugoslavia.

Despite the record, Dobbins has missed out on jobs that would have required Senate confirmation.

Objections by Gilman and Burton squelched a potential nomination by President Clinton to make Dobbins ambassador to the Philippines.

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