The U.S. Institute of Peace has dispatched staffers from its ultramodern building near the Mall in Washington to some of the world’s most dangerous places, but now the federally funded organization is facing its own demise at the hands of the Trump administration.
The USIP, created by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan to engage in conflict resolution around the world, is among more than a dozen independent agencies slated for elimination under the budget blueprint unveiled Thursday. Axing the USIP would save taxpayers $35.3 million.
But the deep spending cuts proposed for foreign aid prompted an immediate backlash across the spectrum in Congress and among humanitarian organizations and religious groups. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the cuts a “catastrophic mistake,” while Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, expressed concern that cuts in diplomacy will hurt efforts to combat terrorism. Mercy Corps called the foreign aid cuts “reckless, dangerous and irresponsible.”
Like other agencies on the chopping block, the USIP has supporters in Congress and the military who can be expected to fight for it, and its death is not a sure thing. But the institute, with its mission of peace building, underscores the budget trade-offs the administration is making as it shifts resources from civilian programs to a military buildup.
“It’s removing tools that there has been a consensus, across both parties in successive administrations, are critical to our international efforts,” said Gayle Smith, the former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. “It leaves us less to work with in a world that is growing more complex.”
The Institute of Peace is considered one of those tools, not only for USAID and the State Department, but also for the Defense Department.
A nonpartisan and independent institution, it trains U.S. diplomats and members of the armed forces heading for unstable parts of the world so they can be prepared to help avert conflicts before they mushroom. It also trains local “facilitators” to mediate local disputes.
Even the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has called for many of the cuts that the Trump administration has adopted, has said the USIP deserves to survive, calling it a “do-tank” as opposed to a think tank.
“The amounts being saved are trivial, but they have disproportionate benefits,” said Eric S. Edelman, who worked in senior positions at the State and Defense departments and is a USIP board member. “Just ask any warfighters who worked with USIP folks in the field. They know there are things that aren’t done by diplomats or the military, but helped in Iraq and Afghanistan advancing the success of military operations and reducing conflicts.”
The USIP is far better known in Baghdad and Kabul than it is in Washington.
USIP-trained mediators arrived in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town in Iraq, in 2015, after the city was emptied of Islamic State fighters who had slain 1,700 Shiite military cadets. The mediators were instrumental in helping arrange a truce between Sunni and Shiite residents. They got leaders of the two communities together in a hotel room paid for by the USIP, along with a few meals, until the Sunnis agreed to turn in the perpetrators and the Shiites vowed not to seek revenge.
In the town of Mahmoudiya, the U.S. Army asked the USIP to help end warfare among rival tribes. After the Iraqis trained by the USIP helped calm the tensions, the army withdrew most of its troops, saving money and arguably lives.
Despite a record of success, this is not the first time the institute has come under financial threat. In 2011, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) teamed up to argue it be defunded. They co-wrote an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, calling it “a case study in how government waste thrives.” Ultimately, Congress gave the USIP $39.5 million of the $46.5 million it requested.
Now, the congressional allocation has dropped another 10 percent. By law, all funding for USIP programs and salaries must come from the federal government. It raises roughly $1 million a year for building maintenance, largely by selling books, charging its 300 employees parking fees and renting out space in its airy Constitution Avenue NW building, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, for private parties.