Give a Reagan-era peace institute a chance
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Our generals will be the first to tell you it’s cheaper to prevent a war than fight one. Lawmakers should keep this in mind as they face an unusually complex budgetary environment this year.

As Congress navigates budget caps and a White House determined to slash spending, it also must consider the turmoil and violence rocking the world.

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You don’t need a crystal ball to see, for example, how the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis could worsen in the near future, with a direct impact on American national security. The U.S., Russia, Iran, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey all have strategic interests in the outcome of that conflict.

 

That’s a good reason to lift the defense budget cap and boost Pentagon spending by $54 billion. But, if appropriators are serious about cracking down on overall spending without sacrificing national security, they should fully fund a unique, successful and cost-effective tool that helps prevent skirmishes around the globe from becoming major wars: the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

On a budget of $38 million a year — and without fanfare — USIP does what no government agency does. A small, agile institute, its highly-trained staff travels into dangerous conflict zones to cool tensions and prevent violent conflict from spiraling out of control.

Unfortunately, USIP is on the chopping block in the president’s 2018 budget proposal. And, yet, Congress recognizes the institute’s value — the recent bipartisan budget deal for FY 2017 provides full funding for USIP again this year. In fact, lawmakers specifically asked USIP to lead a comprehensive plan to counter violent extremism across North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

Consider some of the institute’s under-the-radar achievements. In Iraq, USIP successfully worked alongside local partners with community and national leaders to prevent revenge violence after the notorious 2014 ISIS massacre of 1,700 Shia military cadets near Tikrit.

A recent article in The National Interest noted that the entire expense of USIP’s Tikrit project was only $1 million, compared to anti-ISIS operations that cost the U.S. military about $11.2 million a day.

The Tikrit operation built upon USIP’s experience in 2007, when U.S. military commanders asked the institute to mediate an end to sectarian and tribal warfare gripping an area of Iraq known then as “the Triangle of Death.”

Working with local partners and tribal leaders, USIP brokered an end to hostilities. The resulting calm enabled the U.S. military to reduce its forces there from 3,500 to 650 troops, and holds to this day. The National Interest piece cited Army General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq at the time, later calling the agreement “a striking success.”

The article noted the cost of the USIP project — about $1.5 million — was roughly the price of a single Tomahawk cruise missile. Beyond the dollars and cents are the irreplaceable lives saved of civilians and American soldiers.

On the ground in Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, Syria and Tunisia, as well as in Iraq, USIP is bolstering the ability of local leaders and citizens to strike at the root causes of Islamic radicalization, such as corrupt, abusive or ineffective governance.

In Tunisia, one of the most fertile recruiting grounds for ISIS, USIP trains and supports a network of peace mediators who are strengthening the country’s ability to solve its own conflicts. They’ve reduced potentially explosive tensions on a number of fronts, including between authorities and street vendors, the kind of dynamic that sparked the Arab Spring revolutions.

The institute is not just effective in the turbulent Middle East and North Africa. In Colombia, where a lasting peace is vital to reducing cocaine trafficking to the United States, USIP played a pivotal role in ending a 50-year civil war. 

The U.S. cannot impose democratic values at the butt of a gun, but we can transmit our values with skill and diplomacy. That’s who we are.

When President Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating USIP in 1984, he described its work as part of a “great American tradition” to create a more peaceful world. Since then, Republicans and Democrats have supported its mission to save lives and money and protect military, diplomatic and U.S. investments worldwide. 

If this year’s budget is about value for dollars, it’s hard to make a better case than this.

Stephen Rademaker served as chief counsel for the House Select Committee on Homeland Security and the Committee on International Relations and as an assistant secretary of state and associate White House counsel under President George H. W. Bush. Jim Dyer served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and as staff director for the House Committee on Appropriations.

Both are principals at the Podesta Group and members of USIP’s International Advisory Council.


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