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U.S. Institute of Peace: Targeted by Budget-Cutters, Praised by Military, Hard to Evaluate

Eric Rozenman
US Institute of Peace Building in Washington, DC.

In March, the Trump administration proposed defunding the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), thereby saving taxpayers $35.5 million annually. Some members of Congress and former senior military officers defended the institute.

U.S. Rep. Edward Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “expressed concern that cuts in diplomacy will hurt efforts to combat terrorism,” The Washington Post reported. The ranking minority member on the panel, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), said eliminating USIP’s federal subsidy would be a “catastrophic mistake.”

In May, an 8,500-word National Interest article credited the institute—an autonomous agency apart from the State and Defense departments—with complementing U.S. military counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq. The journal cited effective USIP mediation among warring factions in Mahmoudiya and the “Triangle of Death” in 2007 and in Tikrit in 2015.

The report quoted LTC John Nagl, USA (ret.), an early exponent of contemporary anti-insurgency doctrine, describing USIP as a “‘combat multiplier’ insofar as its specialists ‘understand cultures and tribal and local politics more deeply and more instinctually than anyone but the very best and rare American soldiers.’” Some of those specialists are former diplomats or military members.

But the wavelet of news and commentary about USIP carried more than a hint of déjà vu. In 2011, the House of Representatives opposed further funding of the institute. Not long before the agency had moved into a new, $186 million headquarters (two-thirds funded by taxpayers). The building, designed by famed architect Moshe Safdie, is a large cube under a white-canopied roof meant to suggest dove’s wings. It stands a short walk from the Lincoln Memorial and just across 23rd Street, N.W. from the State Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

A subsequent House-Senate budget compromise sustained the institute but sliced $7 million from its allocation, leaving a $54 million target. Taxpayer support for USIP has declined by $18.5 million over the intervening six years to the current level, but full and part-time staff remains at approximately 300.

Staff members “are on the ground, actively engaged in global conflict management in areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, and the Two Sudans,” USIP’s website says. The site describes the institute as “the independent, nonpartisan conflict management center created by Congress to prevent and mitigate international conflict without resorting to violence. USIP works to save lives, increase the government’s ability to deal with conflicts before they escalate, reduce government costs and enhance our national security.” Its congressional subsidy notwithstanding, the site adds that “USIP is not a government agency. (Emphasis in the original).”

USIP’s work in the Sudans was once counted as a success. As noted, it still deploys staff there. American-supported diplomacy led to the separation of South Sudan from Sudan in 2013. But subsequent civil war in the former has cost tens of thousands of lives, created several million internal and external refugees, and a largely man-made famine. Responsibility hardly attaches to USIP, but the deterioration and devastation may point to the limits of non-violent conflict management.

“In the Balkans [was] where we did the most operational work … getting Bosnians and Serbs to talk to each other,” then USIP President Tara Sonenshine said in 2011. 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.”

The institute 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.”

But in addition to supporting a short-term “surge” in U.S. forces, the study group claimed settling the Arab-Israeli conflict was linked to Washington’s ability to resolve other, larger clashes in the greater Middle East. This missed the extent to which the former is a consequence of instability caused by Sunni Arab imperialism and, to a lesser degree, Shi’a Persian imperialism, rather than a cause of such turmoil.

The institute’s work on Arab-Israeli and Iranian-Israeli issues was often Inside-the-Beltway conventional, at best, even before a 2015 update by Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, USIP’s director of Arab-Israeli programs. “The Olive Branch: U.S. Engagement On The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: Dead End or New Beginning?” was itself a dead end.

It failed to acknowledge Palestinian leadership’s rejection of U.S.-Israeli “two-state” offers in 2000 and 2001 and an Israeli-only proposal in 2008. Palestinian refusal to accept a Jewish state in any borders, and refusal to endorse two states, one Jewish, one Arab, as the end of the conflict, was never mentioned. So, recommendations the United States, European Union, and Arab countries “should include pushing implementation of existing agreements under the Oslo framework, creating mechanisms to ensure adherence by both sides” sounded naïve if not fatuous.

At the outset of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo “peace process” in 1993, and again in the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, the Palestinian side committed itself to extirpating the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, ending anti-Israeli incitement and teaching co-existence, among other things. It has, for more than 20 years, done the opposite. One might logically conclude that Palestinian leadership does not believe the steps it ostensibly committed to, or that USIP’s Kurtzer-Ellenbogen recommends Washington should push, are in its interest.

Even before the House of Representatives proposed defunding USIP in 2011, the institute’s work regarding Iran, Israel and genocide was curious, as this writer noted at the time. For example, Iranian leaders had called for the destruction of Israel, pursued nuclear weapons and long-range missiles contrary to U.N. sanctions and, from aiding Iraqi and Afghan insurgents to funding Hamas and Hezbollah, supported violent international proxies. Decades of Western attempts at diplomatic outreach had 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 already had conceded 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,” explained 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 was 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 was the influential Egyptian theologian, affiliated with the Brotherhood, who had called for “conquering” Europe and America by proselytizing and for a second Holocaust of the Jews, this time by Muslims.

USIP had hosted presentations by Palestinian Authority cabinet members and leading Israeli politicians, including April 2011 by Israeli President Shimon Peres. It made grants to Israeli and Palestinian Arab groups discussing, if not building, peace. Institute Arab-Israeli publications included:

  • “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility,” by Paul Scham and Osama Abu-Irshaid, a June 2009 USIP Special Report. This paper claimed 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 had insisted then and still do 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. Nevertheless, USIP convened a March 13, 2017 half-day session on “Northern Ireland’s Lessons for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.”

  • 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 failed 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.

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, Congress may want to ask itself, “Why the institute?” And if scrutiny shows the institute does what other tax-supported agencies don’t, maybe there is duplication elsewhere to defund.

Author LTC Ralph Peters, USA (ret.) wrote years ago, “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 COL Mike Dziedzic, USAF (ret.) doubted Peters’ critique applied 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 was “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 and a half, Washington appears unable to devise or sustain equivalent strategies for victory—whether “unconditional surrender” or something lesser but satisfactory and sustainable in either country. Failure to do so probably undermines deterrence of larger threats from Iran, North Korea and elsewhere.

If the institute’s budget survives the Republican majority in both chambers of Congress and the Trump White House, closer scrutiny of its performance in identifying and securing national interests in an era of Islamic triumphalism, Arab upheaval, Chinese expansionism and Russian trouble-making will be mandatory.