Support Our Peacemakers

In the face of widespread public disenchantment with the war in Iraq, “Support Our Troops” car stickers and banners defiantly proclaim a fierce sense of patriotism. So why don’t these supportive folks rally behind other national security figures? But when’s the last time you saw a “Support Our Diplomats” sticker or “Support Our Peace Corps” banner?

This is a serious disconnect in America.

Addressing the question of “what is America’s greatest moral failing,” raised by the Reverend Rick Warren at his recent church forum for presidential candidates, Senator McCain answered, "Perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest ... I think after 9/11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip, we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, expand our volunteers, expand what you're doing."

McCain’s straight talk on that topic sure sounded inspiring. Did “Vote for McCain, Join the Peace Corps” signs pop up on Republican front lawns? Not that I noticed.

Senator Obama is said to have said something even more inspiring about the Peace Corps at a speech in Colorado last month—if you can find it, wherever it disappeared on the Internet. Here’s the closest I could find along those lines: “The Democratic Party platform … calls for a doubling in the size of the Peace Corps, and the creation of a volunteer Civilian Assistance Corps. It would be made up of engineers, agriculture specialists, doctors, city planners and other specialists to intervene in humanitarian emergencies in failed states,” Voice of America reported this week.

So have “Obama for President, Double the Peace Corps” signs popped up on Democrats’ lawns? Not that I’ve seen.

There’s a great disparity in the cheerleading for our front line foreign policy teams. Here’s the military team, fielding more than a million troops around the world, fighting two wars with multi-billion-dollar budgets and an open checkbook in Congress. Think they need the support of bumper stickers? And over here’s the Peace Corps, fielding 8,000 volunteers in dozens of countries on a paltry budget that faces a fiscal squeeze in Washington.

“The Peace Corps, the popular service program that President Bush once promised to double in size, is preparing to cut back on new volunteers and consolidate recruiting offices as it pares other costs amid an increasingly tight budget, according to agency officials,” The Washington Post reported today. “In part, the program is caught in the political standoff between lawmakers and the president over the federal budget. If, as seems likely, Democrats delay final passage of the spending bills that fund the government until after Bush leaves office next year, programs such as the Peace Corps could be forced to operate at current funding levels indefinitely, administration officials said.”

And what’s the big budget crisis at the Peace Corps? “The program, which has a budget of $330.8 million, is facing an anticipated shortfall of about $18 million this fiscal year and next,” The Washington Post reported. That’s a pittance, of course, in comparison to the $18 billion the Pentagon earmarked four years ago for reconstruction projects in Iraq that never seem to get completed.

The Peace Corps budget shortfall could easily be covered by recovering reported billing overcharges in the Pentagon budget. But when’s the last time you saw a banner on a fiscally proud American’s home that said “Support Our Pentagon Auditors”?

As for our embattled diplomats, consider this lament from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as channeled in The New York Times: “The United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats. This year alone, the United States Army will add about 7,000 soldiers to its total; that’s more people than in the entire American Foreign Service. More than 1,000 American diplomatic positions are vacant because the Foreign Service is so short-staffed, but a myopic Congress is refusing to finance even modest new hiring. Some 1,100 could be hired for the cost of a single C-17 military cargo plane,” New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote recently.

The source of Kristof’s stunning comparisons, he write, was the Secretary of Defense: “’One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,’ Mr. Gates said [in a recent speech]. He noted that the entire American diplomatic corps—about 6,500 people—is less than the staffing of a single aircraft carrier group, yet Congress isn’t interested in paying for a larger Foreign Service. ’It simply doesn’t have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs,’ Mr. Gates said. ‘As an example, the F-22 aircraft is produced by companies in 44 states; that’s 88 senators.’”

Given the sobering military stand-off the US is now engaged in with nuclear-armed Russia over hot button issues in the Republic of Georgia, maybe it’s high time to unfurl a new set of patriotic banners, large enough so they can see them all the way to Washington: “Get Serious—Support Our Peacemakers.”

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