Debating the Existence of the U.S. Institute of Peace

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March 21, 2011; Source: Christian Science Monitor | There are occasional moments of bipartisan endeavor on Capitol Hill. When it came to a recent vote to contine funding for the U.S. Institute of Peace, created during the Reagan Administration, adversaries on both sides of the aisle joined hands to zero USIP out of the federal budget. Retired Army general Wesley Clark reacted with “disbelief and dismay” to the House of Representatives vote, describing it as a “jaw-dropping, backward step.”

In an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor, Clark credits USIP with building the international conflict management field and cites the in-the-field work of USIP personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Balkans, and elsewhere where they offer training to civilian and military personnel. Clark also credits USIP with effective support during his tenure as NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander during the Kosovo war and afterwards in Bosnia after the 1995 Dayton agreements.

On the other side of the argument stands former Washington Post columnist and director of the Center for Teaching Peace, Colman McCarthy. Although admiring of the USIP staff, McCarthy asks what took the House so long in finally deciding to defund an organization whose record he says is “all gums and no teeth.”. McCarthy says that the Institute’s budget is a pittance, even at an annual appropriation of the current $43 million.

Not one president, Reagan or his successors, has ever mentioned the institute in a State of the Union address or a foreign policy speech. McCarthy charges that the institute hasn’t said a word about America’s history of supporting and propping up heinous dictators in Chile, Iraq, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, much less criticized U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Balkans.

Clark challenged the critique of House Democrats saying that USIP was only a “think tank,” and that’s exactly how McCarthy sees its Congressionally mandated behavior: “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.”

The board members of USIP are political appointees without peace activism track records. McCarthy noted that there has never been a seat or a bloc of seats on the board for real peace activists, such as representatives of the War Resisters League, the Catholic Worker, or the Washington Peace Center. They might have debated, much like the discussion about National Public Radio, whether government funding is a good thing for USIP or whether it comes at a cost of the silence that McCarthy describes.

They might have asked whether it is appropriate to put more money into an organization whose 501(c)(3) endowment ended the fiscal year in 2008 with a fund balance of $38 million and in 2009, a fund balance of $31 million. But it seems like Congress pinpointed USIP as one program where Democrats and Republicans could agree to cut without the fears of a mobilized protest.—Rick Cohen

This Newswire on the U.S. Institute of Peace originally cited the Endowment of the United States Institute of Peace’s end of the year fund balances as $38 million for 2008 and $31 million for 2009. Those figures were actually its total assets.  The fund balances (assets minus liabilities) were actually $27.677 million in 2008 and $15.594 million in 2009. We regret the error. 

  • Hawkish1

    It should be pointed out that Representatives Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), in making their 11th hour amendment to completely eliminate the funding of USIP, mischaracterized the institute to their colleagues on the hill and constituents at home as being a private think tank. A mischaracterization they reinforced in the New York Times when they argued, “the level of taxpayer support that this PRIVATE organization receives is excessive.”

    Your readers might be surprised to learn that the United States Institute of Peace is not a PRIVATE “think tank” but an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit governmental agency created by Congress under Ronald Reagan. In order to preserve this Independence, Congress (which Weiner and Chaffetz belong to) prohibits the Institute from seeking private funding.

    In the same NYT article, the two Representatives also erroneously claimed the Institute

  • Zuma

    The Endowment of the USIP did NOT have fund balances of $38M in 2008 $31M in 2009. The correct numbers are $27M in 2008 and $15M in 2009. Make one wonder what else has been conveniently distorted in your article.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Zuma: thanks for the correction. Mistakenly, not intentionally, we copied the assets line from the 990s, not the fund balance line. Not quite a distortion, more like an error. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Hawkish: thank you for your excellent response and the information about Weiner and Chaffetz, for example. So, what do you think was behind Colman McCarthy’s rather strident lack of support to USIP? Thanks again for the comment.

  • Hawkish1

    Irresponsibility and publicity is my best guess. Other than that I was dumbfounded that someone who advocates peace would risk so much to make the point that Congress does not take peace seriously. The idea you would eliminate an Institute that has done so much with so little, simply because it does not fit into Mr. McCarthy’s utopian view of how peace is made, I find ludicrous.

    By the way, I erroneously stated that Weiner and Chaffetz’s op/ed was in the New York Times, it was actually in the Wall Street Journal

  • caty weaver

    If USIP is a government agency then why do all their job announcements say employment at the Institute of Peace is not employment with the US government? It is stated on staff positions not just contractor positions.