Many Americans have never heard of an organization called the U.S. Institute of Peace, nor of a federal budget proposal to eliminate it. But as a U.S. diplomat I have seen — in Iraq for example — that our country increasingly needs this specialized institute. Its work to reduce violence abroad that imperils U.S. interests cannot be duplicated by government agencies. The proposal to shut USIP is not well thought out, and should be dead on arrival in Congress.
As the United States seeks cost-effective national security, it’s a sensible idea to consolidate functions where that consolidation can work. But USIP, which Congress created as an independent, non-partisan institute, goes beyond what agencies such as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) legally and institutionally can do to advance peace and stability.
Now, as most warfare involves domestic disputes abroad, and as the United States turns more to military solutions for wont of diplomatic capacity, USIP is even more important.
In 35 years in the Department of State, and five more at a foreign policy think tank, I have seen USIP contribute directly to American success overseas. As our country seeks more efficient ways to prevent violence and extremism, USIP provides deep expertise in locating the real roots of international conflicts. The institute also operates long-term projects that help stabilize countries facing violence and local initiatives for political and societal reconciliation. It also provides independent analyses of U.S. foreign policies related to conflicts abroad.
This success is due in large part to the institute’s unique capabilities. Free from the bureaucratic and security strictures of U.S. government civilian operations, USIP’s personnel remain longer, and range further, in conflict zones. Its status independent of any given U.S. administration helps it speak and earn respect in circles distrustful of the United States. Its nonpartisan leadership and its funding by Congress allow it to experimentally develop and use “best practices,” through its work in the field, in a way we could not in government.
I have seen this firsthand on the terrain of one of America’s main foreign policy challenges: Iraq.
In 2006, USIP facilitated the Iraq Study Group (led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Indiana Democrat Rep. Lee Hamilton) to examine what had gone wrong with U.S. policy there. As Condoleezza Rice’s Iraq coordinator, I helped develop administration support for what was essentially a “red team” examination of President George W. Bush’s most critical foreign policy issue. Both the administration and its critics — in the Congress, media and the public — trusted USIP to produce a credible and unbiased analysis. No other institution had the resources, agility and independent reputation to do this. The work of that study group contributed to the Bush administration’s dramatic change in Iraq policy in early 2007.
In that same year, USIP partnered with the U.S. Army in Mahmoudyia, a zone south of Baghdad then called the “Triangle of Death” that I knew only too well from my first tour in that country. Using sophisticated outreach and negotiating tactics, based on an in-depth study of the tribes and communities of the region, USIP helped mediate a local peace agreement that dramatically cut U.S. and Iraqi casualties in that area. The stability there still holds; when ISIS overran much of Iraq in 2014, it could not successfully penetrate Mahmoudiya.
In 2015, after the liberation of Tikrit from ISIS, I spoke with Sunni Arab community leaders from that city. They singled out USIP work to prevent violence between Shia and Sunni Arabs, and between those who had remained behind with ISIS when it conquered the city, and those who had fled and supported its liberation. This still remains the best example of local post-ISIS reconciliation and peace-building that I know of in the ISIS campaign. With luck, USIP and its proven programs will play a role in the broader reconciliation of Mosul and other areas now retaken from ISIS.
In short, for an annual cost that represents a fraction of a single F-35 fighter jet, USIP provides America with an irreplaceable complement in achieving U.S. and global peacemaking and peacekeeping goals. It is an essential element of our foreign policy and must be supported.
James F. Jeffrey is a career Foreign Service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Turkey and Albania. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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