|Peace Corps and the War on Terrorism|
Peace Corps was born and flourished in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War. President Kennedy saw that in addition to confronting communism militarily when necessary, we also needed to address its challenge for the hearts and minds of people in poor countries who did not enjoy our freedom and prosperity and had no understanding (or wrong understanding) of Americans and the ideals we embrace.
Kennedy's vision for Peace Corps was not as an instrument to achieve short-term foreign policy objectives but as a global showcase of American ideals in action that would at the same time productively engage the enthusiasm of Americans, especially American youth, to serve their country through service to others. It was to be an instrument not only to promote economic development but also to promote better mutual understanding between Americans and people in poor countries.
As an economic development agency, Peace Corps plays a limited but significant role. Its small, village-level projects have a much greater development bang for the foreign aid buck than do the much larger-scale projects of USAID, the World Bank, and other donors. Peace Corps' total budget last year was $265 million, a sum that could be lost as a rounding error in the federal budget. With its low cost, relative efficiency and reliance on voluntarism, it is an excellent example of a foreign engagement informed by "compassionate conservatism."
Beyond its modest impact on reducing global poverty, Peace Corps contributes directly to a more positive image of America among people for whom Americans are often no more than a grotesque caricature generated by Hollywood and hostile propaganda. It also gives a substantial number of Americans a better understanding of countries that few could find on a map but which, as we recently learned with Afghanistan, can suddenly become quite important to our interests. And it is a marvelous training opportunity for young Americans embarking on international careers. In 1999, for example, 40% of new Foreign Service Officers had Peace Corps experience.
Just as Peace Corps showcased American values and won friends during the Cold War era, it can also contribute to our long-term success in the war on terrorism. While it should not be explicitly or organizationally linked to the war effort, the current international context offers an unparalleled opportunity for its modernization, expansion and rejuvenation. I believe Americans would be highly responsive to an articulate call for commitment to international volunteer work as a way of serving their country in today's challenging world.
WHAM and the War on Terrorism
The war on terrorism is also a war of ideas. By whatever name, it must also have a robust psywar/propaganda/public diplomacy element.
In this battle for public opinion in the Islamic world, we are surely not winning. We are barely competing. Even relatively friendly media tend to portray the war not as between good and evil but between moral equivalents. Here in Niger and other Muslim countries, considerable credence is given to allegations that the US is deliberately bombing civilians and conducting a war not against terrorism but against Islam.
This is not to say that Islamic extremism is winning anything like a majority of Muslim hearts and minds. Certainly that is not the case in Niger. The radical Islamists remain a minority, but over the past few years they have been an alarmingly growing minority in some areas. In northern Nigeria, they may well be a majority. We ignore at our peril the hate-America viewpoint they promote.
In recent years, our weapons for fighting the battle for public opinion have been laid aside or allowed to deteriorate. The principal Cold War instrument for telling America's story abroad, the US Information Agency, was subjected to a series of budget cuts and finally eliminated as a separate agency by a strange-bedfellow coalition of Senator Jesse Helms and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. While the State Department picked up its functions, in principle not a bad idea, in practice focus was lost and resources continued to dwindle. Until reversed this year under Colin Powell's leadership, the State Department's budget was also in long-term, sharp decline. This resulted in the closure of dozens of overseas diplomatic, consular and information posts and starvation funding for the rest, drastically reducing our interaction with local leaders and opinion-makers. The Voice of America and cultural exchange programs have also languished.
As with the reductions in the foreign aid budget, this was understandable (although shortsighted) in the context of the Cold War's end. Now, however, these trends must be reversed. We badly need to reinforce our ability to fight and win the battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world.
Not really. Perhaps $8-10 billion to double the size of our current foreign aid program; $200 million to double the size of the Peace Corps; and $2-3 billion to reopen critical Foreign Service posts in Muslim countries and greatly amplify our public diplomacy voice.
This is more than chump change, but it's very modest compared to the military costs of prolonging the war, a likely result of failing to make such expenditures. And it represents a small insurance premium compared to the losses we would suffer if the terrorists and their extremist supporters continue to multiply.