The U.S. Institute of Peace: Bad for the Budget, Bad for the Jews

Why was the institute defunded?

Something unexpected happened to the 300 full- and part-time staff members of the United States Institute of Peace last spring. Just before they moved into new headquarters -- a $186 million architectural oddity in which federal office building meets Disney World -- the House of Representatives voted to defund them.

Forty-one Democrats joined the Republican majority in opposing USIP. A subsequent House-Senate budget compromise sustained the institute but sliced $7 million from its allocation, leaving a $54 million target for next time.

And that was without scrutiny of the institute’s work on Iran, Israel and genocide.

Iranian leaders repeatedly call for the destruction of Israel, pursue nuclear weapons and long-range missiles contrary to U.N. sanctions and, from aiding Iraqi and Afghan insurgents to funding Hamas and Hezbollah, support violent international proxies. Decades of Western attempts at diplomatic outreach have failed.

Yet in November 2010, a 40-member panel from USIP and the Stimson Center -- a Washington think tank dedicated to non-proliferation -- produced Engagement, Coercion, and Iran's Nuclear Challenge. It called on the Obama administration to implement “strategic engagement” to “rebalance” what the authors labeled America’s punitive dialogue-sanctions approach to the Islamic Republic. The study wanted no more public assertions that last-resort military strikes remain “on the table.”

Instead, it envisioned America connecting to “pragmatists” within the Iranian leadership. These links would aim at compromising Tehran's nuclear arms drive in exchange for supporting legitimate goals, including peaceful nuclear development. Yet the United States concedes the latter and it was "pragmatists" including former President Hashemi Rafsanjani who early supported Iran's covert nuclear weapons effort.

In 2009, USIP, in conjunction with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Academy of Diplomacy, issued a 174-page report, Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers. The study, conducted by a foreign policy Who’s-Who, recalled the Nazi genocide of European Jewry and invoked the post-Holocaust assertion “never again!” It referred to mass murders in Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur and elsewhere. But it did not mention Iranian threats against the Jewish state.

“Preventing Genocide was not meant to be comprehensive,” said USIP Executive Vice President Tara Sonenshine. Rather, it was intended to guide the Obama administration “regarding organization of the National Security Council and intelligence agencies ... [about] how to recognize the danger of genocide” before it is committed.

USIP’s January 2009 Special Report, “Islamic Peacemaking Since 9/11,” surveyed  generalized anti-terrorism, pro-tolerance statements from Islamic leaders and Muslim organizations. It included, uncritically, soothing remarks from CAIR -- the Council on American Islamic Relations -- a Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood derivative, at least five of whose former lay leaders or staff have been jailed or deported -- and Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He’s the influential Egyptian theologian, affiliated with the Brotherhood, who has called for “conquering” Europe and America by proselytizing and for a second Holocaust of the Jews, this time by Muslims.

USIP has hosted presentations by Palestinian Authority cabinet members and leading Israeli politicians, including, last April, Israeli President Shimon Peres. It makes grants to Israeli and Palestinian Arab groups discussing, if not building, peace. Institute Arab-Israeli publications have included:

  • “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility,” by Paul Scham and Osama Abu-Irshaid, a June 2009 USIP Special Report. This paper claims that “experience with intractable conflicts in Northern Ireland, Aceh, and elsewhere suggests that ideologically rigid movements can change over time and that a peace process itself can play a critical role in shaping such an evolution .... While no one should be expected to trust blindly, repeated failures to achieve a lasting solution to this seemingly intractable conflict suggest that a reexamination of our assumptions and analytical frameworks is essential.”

But Hamas leaders insist repeatedly that their movement's raison d'etre is the destruction of Israel. The analogy between the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland and Arab/Muslim-Israeli/Jewish conflict in the Middle East fails: The Irish Republican Army never called for the destruction of England or its incorporation into Catholic Ireland, mainstream Irish Catholic clergy did not celebrate anti-Protestant bloodshed, and by the time negotiations took hold the IRA had lost outside support.

  • Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace; American Leadership in the Middle East, a 190-page paperback by Amb. Daniel C. Kurtzer and Scott B. Lasensky, published in 2008 as another guide for the incoming Obama administration. Claiming to come to grips with “lessons learned and opportunities lost,” it fails to account for one of the most obvious lessons: Repeated rejections by Arab leadership, including Palestinian, of peace proposals from the 1930s to 2008. In 2010, the Obama administration named Lasensky a senior advisor to the U.S. mission to the United Nations on Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese affairs.

An old notion brought to life after the Vietnam war, the institute spent 26 years in rented quarters before hosting President George W. Bush and Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a 2008 ground-breaking for its new building. Congress had approved $120 million toward  architect Moshe Safdie’s “dove-wings-over-boxes” design, with private funds paying the balance.

Across 23rd Street N.W. from the State Department, USIP raises a question. Given State and Defense’s policy planning sections, the U.S. Army’s Peace-Keeping and Stability Operations Institute, and private non-profits like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, why the institute?

State may have asked itself the same. Secretary Hilary Rodham Clinton’s Quadrennial Diplomatic and Development Review, unveiled in December 2010, included a goal of “improving the department’s ability to defuse crises before they explode.” That’s USIP’s mission.

The agency “is an independent institution established and funded by Congress to promote research, education and training on the peaceful prevention, management and resolution of international conflicts,” says its Web site. Officers and staff come from the foreign service, academia and the military. Some go the other way, such as Executive VP Sonenshine, picked by the White House to be the next undersecretary of State for public diplomacy.

USIP facilitated the work of the Iraq Study Group. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) promoted formation of the bi-partisan panel in 2006 to recommend alternatives to the Bush administration’s failing Iraq war strategy. Wolf asserted that the institute provided “the only place I could bring together” Republicans and Democrats and that would be “an honest broker, [allowing] everything on the table.”

Off-the-mark as it may be on Arab-Israeli contention and Islamic triumphalism, the institute entices official Washington and the news media. National Journal magazine lauded USIP several years back as “amazingly effective” in a host of foreign crises, including in southern Sudan. A senior U.N. official said “you would have thought that because it is funded by Congress, it is seen as just supporting U.S. policy, but that is not my sense at all .... They come across as very credibly non-partisan, non-ideological, and respected, world-wide.”

Gen. David H. Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, now CIA director, praised USIP’s involvement in Iraq’s “triangle of death.” Sonenshine recalled that “Mahmoudiya was a highly conflicted region .... It was clear that part of the problem was the relationship between the U.S. military, foreign organizations and Iraqi organizations. We played a bridging function to get people with their own turf concerns around a table.”

The intent was “to introduce an independent, neutral organization without a clear agenda, to get people talking to each other.” U.S. provincial reconstruction teams, civilian organizations and Iraqis “created a compact in which local stakeholders and leaders were able to sign their own vision statement for how they wanted to govern their part of Iraq .... We were able to bridge that.”

“In the Balkans [was] where we did the most operational work ... getting Bosnians and Serbs to talk to each other,” Sonenshine said. After the State Department mediated the 1995 Dayton Accords that formally ended a three and a-half year war, USIP “did 10 years of civil society building .... all the stuff you don't see when the cameras go away.”

Author Ralph Peters (Lt. Col., U.S. Army, Ret.) has written that “the most troubling aspect of international security for the United States is not the killing power of our immediate enemies, which remains modest in historical terms, but our increasingly effete view of warfare. …[H]ad we been ruthless in the use of our overwhelming power in the early days of conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the ultimate human toll — on all sides — would have been far lower.”

USIP staffer Mike Dziedzic (Col., USAF, Ret.) doubts Peters’ critique applies to threats against a great power not primarily from another power but from places of “state weakness” and “state failure” like Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. For Dziedzic, one of the institute’s proper concerns is “how to make a failed state work.” Otherwise, “they’re ripe to be exploited by the Islamists .... As an institute, we bridge the civil-military gap.”

In the 1940s and 1950s the United States helped conquer, occupy, and rebuild Germany and Japan. Despite the thousands of GIs killed and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade, Washington appears unable to devise or sustain equivalent strategies for victory in either country or for deterence of larger, threatening neighbors like Pakistan and Iran.

If the institute’s budget survives a potential Republican majority in both chambers of Congress, closer scrutiny as part of planning to identify and secure national interests in an era of Islamic triumphalism, Arab upheaval, Chinese expansionism and Russian trouble-making will be mandatory.

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