OEDEL: Mind over muscle on the world stage

January 6, 2013 

Here were our 2012 U.S. national financial priorities on the world stage: Muscle (defense and war operations): $683 billion. Talk (State Department diplomacy and related programs): $53 billion. Strategically preventing war (U.S. Institute of Peace, or “USIP”): $0.04 billion.

In other words, we spend 13 times more on defense and war as on diplomacy, and 17,000 times more on defense and war than on the freestyle practical peace-making done by USIP.

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, we might think about rebalancing the scales. Muscle is good to have, but mind and strategic savvy should come first.

So what is this USIP? You should go see its architecturally dramatic headquarters on the mall in Washington on your next visit. It’s at the opposite end, both physically and metaphorically, from the gridlocked political war zone that is the U.S. Capitol.

USIP is a nonpartisan, quasi-governmental organization. No more than eight of its 15 board members can hail from the same political party. By law, it is to be funded solely by Congress. It’s a working model of U.S. ingenuity and resourcefulness on the world stage.

USIP headquarters is where Myanmar’s Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi this past September gave her first address in the U.S. in over 40 years. Suu Kyi herself is the child of a military general, just like the head of USIP, Jim Marshall. Marshall is an Army Ranger Hall of Fame member who dropped out of Princeton to enlist for active duty in Vietnam, where he fought hard and was wounded.

Marshall, also a former U.S. congressman, Princeton professor and mayor of Macon, just got back from a trip to Libya for USIP. There he met with Libya’s president to see if USIP might help that country stabilize itself through figuring out how to deal with details like picking up the trash, filling potholes, staffing schools, recovering Gadhafi stash of stolen money, writing a constitution and helping Libyans take responsibility for themselves while getting along with one another in the chaos after Qaddafi’s demise.

USIP puts hotshot troubleshooters into the hot spots of the world to try to avoid the need for troops on the ground -- places that you and I might not choose to visit right about now, like Islamabad, Baghdad, Kabul, Libya, the Sudan, Syria.

USIP is a model of U.S. ingenuity, courage and resourcefulness on the world stage. But Congress doesn’t seem to get it.

Thanks to weird partisan attacks on USIP in 2011 from people like former congressman Anthony Weiner (more famous for posting weiner photos online, leading to his resignation), the U.S. House saw fit to zero out USIP’s funding in 2011. Luckily, the Senate acted with a little more sense, and USIP was brought back on life support.

USIP’s anemic budget of about $37 million for sophisticated prevention of war worldwide is less than the price of a single U.S. platoon of 40 soldiers for one year in Afghanistan according to Defense Department numbers, not even counting long-run costs for any injuries suffered by platoon members.

Investing in USIP’s daring peace-making operations is smarter and more effective than sending our noble armed troops into harm’s way. It’s no surprise that the U.S. military is one of USIP’s biggest fans. If we had more strategically attuned, savvy and brave people like Marshall leading the Defense Department, U.S. warriors and diplomats would all be in a better position to advance our interests both around the globe and at home.

In the meantime, it’s good that at least one tiny agency of our government is working hard, effectively and efficiently to advance the peace that’s good for America, and good for the world.

David Oedel is a professor of constitutional law at Mercer University Law School.

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