A peacemaker's case against the U.S. Institute of Peace

Sunday, March 20, 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.

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