The Peace Corps, which has arguably been the United States' best foreign policy initiative in the last half of this century, was ill served by two recent decisions of Director Paul Coverdell, both of which betrayed that he and the Bush administration do not understand much about the genesis of the Peace Corps' political strategy abroad.
In the biggest apparent change, it was announced that volunteers will soon go to Eastern Europe, thus joining the rush to redistribute even that small percentage of U.S. resources allocated to Third World countries to the more understandable, more personally felt problems of Europe.
But the Peace Corps was conceived as a way for the idealism and skills of U.S. citizens to help countries with severe development needs. As former deputy Peace Corps director in Brazil and director in Zaire in the 1960s, I know that in the course of their service the volunteers and our country received as much as the recipient countries from these encounters.
The Peace Corps is a development idea that works. Because its results may often not be quantifiable, it will never earn the macro-economist's lead recommendation. But if results are more modest, they may be more lasting. Sometimes without having intended to, they even make the politically valuable point that our government is sympathetic to the hopes of the people of the country whatever the political line from Washington. A friend of mine recently served in a key post of our embassy in a Communist African country, where he found that almost all the ministers of the government had a decidedly more benign view of the United States than their government's policy of the time, solely because, 20 years before, they had been taught by Peace Corps volunteers.
The countries of Eastern Europe do not need expatriate teachers. Indeed they are among the world's best educated countries, with a literacy rate that is as high or higher than ours and universities that had world renown before there was a United States. Even those arguing from the short-term needs arising from Communist mismanagement must in fairness concede that those needs hardly equal those of countries where development, and the Peace Corps' contribution to it, may be the only alternative to death by starvation or disease.
Why are the volunteers being sent to Eastern Europe? I am forced to conclude that as an inexpensive and quickly marshaled development device, they are seen by the Bush administration as a means of muting some of the disappointment and anger of countries that are asking for money we no longer have.
The second change, renaming the Peace Corps as the United States Peace Corps, although presented by Mr. Coverdell as an insignificant confirmation on signs and letterheads of a recognized fact, is actually the biggest change of the two, because it represents a change in spirit which may be impossible to ever withdraw. It diminishes the appeal of volunteer service and the image of the Peace Corps in the countries it serves -- the belief that the Peace Corps has a different, more human rationale than the State Department, the Defense Department or AID; that it is there because of the country's need, and not a response to U.S. geopolitical strategy, such as the decision to send volunteers to Eastern Europe.
Again I am forced to consider why this change was made, and to conclude that the reason was to fold the Peace Corps ever more tightly into the interstices of U.S. political strategy from which Sargent Shriver and his successor directors kept it at great effort.
I find the changes disturbing. The Peace Corps can recover from a few years of ineffective programs in Eastern Europe, but if it becomes politicized, its clear call to the best in all of us could be permanently stilled. EDWARD PATRICK HEALY Bethesda