March 18, 2011

In June 1999, Anika Binnendijk, a star student in my daily 7:25 a.m. peace studies class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, was given $5,000 by the U.S. Institute of Peace. In the agency’s national peace essay contest, an annual scholarship event in which more than 2,500 high school students compete, Anika, idealistic and a lucid writer, was the Maryland state winner — a $1,000 prize — and then placed second in the nationals. Top honors went to a girl from South Dakota.

All state winners came to Washington for a week of seminars. I was one of the speakers, my turn coming at a breakfast for the students on their final day in town. The institute has invited me back several times, and I have relished those visits, as well as the workshops I’ve done there for high school social studies teachers.

Last month, the austerity-minded House of Representatives voted to cut funding for the institute.

My question is: What took it so long?

As greatly as I admire the staff members at the institute and their professional commitment to increase peace and decrease violence, their work is necessarily little more than a balm on our delusional belief that our government places a high priority on peace. The institute’s record has been all gums and no teeth.

The overlords of Congress wouldn’t have it any other way. If they did, they would appropriate real money — meaningful money, in the billions. Instead, the institute’s budget has been among the most trivialized in Washington: At the current $43 million, it is one-hundredth of 1 percent of the Pentagon’s budget and less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the State Department’s. The current military and security budget, ever rising, is about $2.4 billion a day, a sum 10 times greater than the institute’s total budget for 27 years. In that time, the institute has yet to earn even a line in a State of the Union address.

The institute was established in 1984, when President Ronald Reagan took time out from arming his favorite juntas to reluctantly sign the legislation that created it. He then lectured its directors at their first meeting that “in the real world, peace through strength must be our motto.”

The institute has obediently followed those orders and avoided examination of the military policies of the U.S. government. 

Now, the nation’s military is trapped in two wars it can’t win, can’t afford and can’t end. And, as if doomed to weakness from the start, the institute is stuck with its hopeless mission to “prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools and intellectual capital worldwide.”

It has done some of that exceedingly well by sending skilled mediators into conflict zones worldwide. One of them, Alison Milofsky, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Slovakia, spoke to my high school classes last week and told of her work in defusing tribal and ethnic disputes in Africa.

From the beginning, the legislation Congress passed assured that the institute would be forbidden to engage in advocacy or dissent. Not a murmur, much less a foreign policy speech, has been heard about U.S. support of dictators in Bolivia, Chile, Iraq, Nicaragua and the Philippines, to cite the short list.

Not a public peep was heard to counter George W. Bush’s war advisers — the slam-dunkers and cakewalkers —who urged the president and Congress to dispatch troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and to Iraq in 2003. Protests are not voiced when civilians are killed by U.S. and NATO forces, recurrences that are all but routine. The institute takes no position on whether the nation’s military policies are bankrupting our economy or that it’s time to stop fighting fire with fire and fight it with the water of nonviolence.

Instead of speaking truth to power, whisper it in the institute’s hallways or on coffee breaks at conferences. Congress says don’t agitate, just cogitate. Don’t criticize, just theorize. Sit in the boat, don’t rock it. Favor world peace, but don’t oppose U.S. wars.

Without doubt, a fair number of mid- and upper-level people at the institute would like to speak out — to help bring the nation to its senses, well aware of a futile foreign policy of bringing adversaries to their knees. But they can’t. They know that Congress, the balm-demanders, probably would blast the institute as a haven of anti-war blame-America-firsters. With little choice, the institute behaves.

The chairman of the 10-member bipartisan board for the past seven years is J. Robinson West, a Bush appointee who served in the Reagan administration as an assistant secretary of the interior in charge of offshore oil policies and before that as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for international economic affairs. In 1984, he founded the PFC Energy company. Little in his professional background suggests either a competency in peacemaking or ties to the American peace movement. The vice chairman is George Moose, a former ambassador posted by the Reagan administration to Benin and Senegal.

With occasional exceptions — I have in mind Kerry Kennedy — presidential appointments to the institute’s board serve as a homogenized dumping ground for academics, corporate executives, Republican or Democratic party loyalists, and others of the well-paid and seemly mannered with no reputations as boundary-pushers. They have little hands-on experience in peace education or peace training, much less sweaty antiwar activism. They are more suited for patronage appointments to harmless presidential commissions, if their yens to be seen as players can’t be controlled.

Over the years, I can’t recall any pacifists from the War Resisters League, the Catholic Worker, the Washington Peace Center or — horrors! — the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee being given a seat on the board.

On the last day of the institute’s presence at 1200 17th St. in downtown Washington, and a week before Monday’s opening day of headquarters at 2301 Constitution Ave., I met with five staff workers.

All the things they told me about their worthy labors — overseeing research grants given to scholars, training programs in conflict resolution, field work in conflict zones, book publishing, helping schools create peace-studies programs, essay contests — are efforts I admire and support.

The trouble is, neither Congress nor presidents admire and support the institute. If they did, strength through peace would receive more than a dollop of the money given to peace through strength. If they did, what Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967 about congressional money decisions no longer would be true: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

If the Senate sides with the House on closing the agency — and I hope it does, because the demeaning of the institute is too painful to behold — the institute’s more valuable work can be privatized. Let it incorporate, go after some real money and do the job right. The institute should have 100 Alison Milofskys. It should have more than 4,000 workers, not fewer than 400. For funding, put in calls to George Soros, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. For bipartisanship, find some billionaire libertarians — Ron Paul can find them — who want to slash Pentagon spending and close U.S. military bases abroad.

For new board members, I suggest Concepcion Picciotto, a Spanish-born pacifist who nearly every day for 30 years — amid blizzards, heat waves, police arrests and hassling from the Secret Service — has staged a peace vigil at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In her sidewalk bunker, she has been the closest neighbor to five presidents.

My other choice is dear Anika Binnendijk. After high school, she studied at Princeton, graduated cum laude, married the captain of the golf team and earned a doctorate at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Her dissertation, sponsored by the institute, was titled “Holding Fire: Security Force Allegiance During Nonviolent Uprisings.”

In 2008, she did legwork on the Obama campaign and is now a special assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. With her knowledge about the effectiveness of nonviolence, perhaps she can effect change at the Pentagon.

My greater hope is that the Pentagon never changes her.

Colman McCarthy, a former columnist for The Washington Post, directs the Center for Teaching Peace and teaches courses on nonviolence at four Washington area universities and two high schools.