Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Word on the U.S. Institute of Peace

The Republican-controlled House came to power in 2010 on a pledge to cut the federal deficit. Unwilling for political or ideological reasons to reduce spending on any of the government's big expenditures on entitlements and defense, Republicans are trying to fulfill their promise by eliminating a variety of small programs that they have historically opposed. Among them is the U.S. Institute of Peace. In this piece, written in response to a defense of the Institute by one of its vice-presidents, I argue that the Institute is hopelessly compromised. Its claims to represent one of humanity's highest aspirations are inevitably belied by its need to secure funding from Congress. In the end, the Institute is really little more than a tiny cog in America's national security apparatus.

I should say that I worked at the Institute for several years. I left on good terms, and I have no personal quarrel with anyone working there now. On the contrary: I like and admire many of the staff. But I became increasingly troubled by the contradictions inherent in its status as a government-funded agency purportedly devoted to a humanitarian ideal. The Institute's refusal, over the years I worked there, to do anything much about the Congo, where the world's deadliest conflict continues to unfold, struck me as a particularly glaring abdication. As a low-ranking "service" employee, I was not in a position to influence what the Institute did, although every few months I would email to general circulation yet another news story about the plight of the Congolese. To zero response.

The USIP, at its upper and even mid levels, is mostly staffed with former CIA, State, and Defense Department personnel, and its president is one of Kissinger's former acolytes. The $100 million earmark for its beautiful new building on the Mall was a favor from Alaska Senator Ted Stevens to J. Robinson West, a former energy official appointed to the chairmanship of the Institute by his friend, Dick Cheney. West now runs his own enormously lucrative oil consultancy; he and the Alaska "Oil Senator" go back a long way. The first major private gift to its building fund came from Exxon Chevron in honor of George Shultz, whom the Wall Street Journal dubbed the "intellectual godfather" of the Iraq war.[1] Shultz earned Chevron's gratitude in the 1990s by trading on his political contacts in central Asia to help the company win access to Kazakhstan's oil fields. The benefits to Chevron and the Kazakh elite were considerable, as was the damage to the local environment and to the health of the region’s inhabitants. The Peace Institute's presence on the Mall is, therefore, the DC-oil mafia's gift to itself, paid for by the American taxpayer.

It is only in that context that the Institute's commitment to peace can be understood. One can search its publications in vain for any critical discussion of U.S. torture, drone raids, or use of military contractors, let alone any questioning of the wisdom of US interventions abroad. The preponderance of its efforts over the past decade have focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, where it has defined its mission as "helping to win the peace." (The military having won the war.) With its appropriations under attack, the Institute has defended itself almost entirely in terms of national security: its president has warned of the importance of not scrimping on our defense; Generals Patraeus and Zinni have testified to its utility in our ongoing wars abroad; and Secretary Clinton tellingly described the Institute as a vital part of "our arsenal." Meanwhile, the Institute has almost entirely ignored conflicts that do not engage US interests: in the Congo, for example, where close to six million people have died in the deadliest war since 1945.

The Institute is, in brief, a tiny cog in the national security apparatus of the United States. It promotes no substantive agenda of its own; its mission as it defines it would be compatible with the goals of any administration--or indeed, with almost any regime in any part of the world. It would be more apt to call it the the  Institute for the Pacification of Natives in Places of Strategic Importance, but where's the glamour in that? Depending on how you feel about the American project abroad, there is nothing inherently wrong about the US having an institute devoted to the non-violent projection of American interests. The problem comes when the Institute’s defenders claim to operate under the banner of a higher cause. Should Congress defund the Institute, the stunning building it now occupies on the northwest corner of the mall will stand as a mute testimonial to the inherent contradiction between the cyclopic agenda of the state and the ideals its servants sometimes find useful to espouse.

[1] UPDATE 10/17/12: I wasn't entirely accurate about this: As with my confusion of Exxon with Chevron, it goes to show you the limitations of (my?) memory. He was not called the godfather of the Iraq war by the wall street journal's editorialists. He was called the "father" of the "Bush doctrine" of preemption by Wall Street Journal editorialist Dan Henninger.  See here and here

No comments:

Post a Comment