Department of Peace

October 15th, 2009

PeaceDeptThe former community activist who garnered a Nobel Peace Prize shortly after taking office as President of the United States should appreciate the grit of this civic campaign. Signing legislation that would cap this grassroots effort, moreover, is the sort of action that would likely generate a wall of peace awards for Barack Obama.

The campaign to create a U.S. Department of Peace is backed by the usual suspects, including Veterans For Peace and the Student Peace Alliance, but also by more mainstream supporters like country music singer Willie Nelson. A persistent voice for grassroots causes like Farm Aid, Nelson is a spokesman these days for a cause that’s flared and sputtered and flared back up again throughout American history.

“I want to share with you why I feel this campaign to establish a U.S. Department of Peace is so important,” Texas-bred Nelson says in a web site promo for a bill that seems perpetually stuck in some committee in Congress. “We have the opportunity to make violence prevention and peacemaking a central conversation in our culture right now. And there couldn’t be a more urgent time to do so.”

In Brooklyn, N.Y., community activist Howard Rosenberg is conveying the same message, urging the New York City Council to join Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Cleveland and other cities in calling for such federal action. “We have to engage the world as a community and open a dialogue,” Rosenberg said, reported the New York Post. “Some say that’s naive, but [Richard] Nixon went to China and he was the most conservative president in history.”

In West Linn, Oregon, Councilman Mike Jones, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, joined the unanimous vote last fall to support the Department of Peace bill, the fourth city in the state to do so. Addressing a delegation of high school students who requested municipal support of this campaign, Jones said “What you’ve started and are working on here should guide you through your lives,” according to the local newspaper, The West Linn Tidings.“It’s not just the will, but the skill to make peace,” Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota said of the proposed legislation’s public education components. Ellison is among more than 70 co-sponsors of the Department of Peace bill, HR 808, reintroduced in February by Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who represents a Middle America district that includes the Polka Capital of Cleveland, Ohio—not to mention the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Versions of this bill, based on ideas going back to the founding of the country by rebels who revolted against the tyrannical behavior of the British army, have been kicking around Congress for decades. 

An earlier version flared hot in the 1980s, leading to creation of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. The federally funded peace institute is constructing a new headquarters that’s rising on a corner of the Mall in Washington, D.C. overlooking the Vietnam, Korea and World War II memorials. Its mission is to sponsor research grants, books, pilot projects and conferences on nonviolent approaches to dealing with hot spots of violence.

For instance, last week “the U.S. Institute of Peace and the U.S. Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute unveiled the first strategic ‘doctrine’ ever produced for civilian actors involved in peace operations. The ‘Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction’ (S&R) is a practical roadmap for helping countries transition from violent conflict to peace.” Why is this kind of document important? “Ad hoc, disorganized campaigns for peace have been the hallmark of past missions,” said Amb. John Herbst, U.S. Department of State Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. “This two-year investigation into thousands of pages of documents written by dozens of agencies may help to mitigate the chaotic nature of these missions by finally putting into one place what we know.”

The proposed peace department would have a cabinet-level seat next to the departments of state and defense. It would consolidate several existing programs that are now scattered around Washington. These include the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Peace Corps and the Office of the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs of the Department of State.

It would also create public education programs to address outbreaks of violence in American communities, as well as abroad. That dual emphasis is what attracted Willie Nelson’s support, as well as that of a long list of civic organizations. “We see daily the tragic impact violence is having on the planet. And I feel heartened that so many practical solutions will be brought forth through a Department of Peace. There are many programs and practices that are already proving to be incredibly effective at reducing … gang violence, violence in our schools and our homes, as well as conflict around the world,” Nelson said.

Walter Cronkite, the late retired CBS News anchor, offered a thought-provoking take on this idea in a newspaper opinion piece in 2004. “Wouldn’t it have been an advantage in the run-up to the Iraq War to have had a cabinet officer whose department was responsible for training U.S. personnel in human rights, conflict resolution, reconstruction and the detailed planning necessary to restoring a durable peace; in short, to do what was so disastrously absent when our forces rolled into Baghdad?” Cronkite wrote.

Besides Iraq, which remains more a battle zone than a functional nation, a change in U.S. policy to a peace-building approach would go a long way in lowering violence levels in Afghanistan. After eight years of escalating warfare, the U.S. military is flailing down the same path of destruction as previous armies that found it impossible to tame Afghanistan’s mountain tribes. And yet, as a little reading about the region shows, a peaceful visitor to these same parts has historically been warmly welcomed.

Creating a peace department would clearly demonstrate that Obama is developing a new plan for addressing increasingly unsustainable war policies.

For more information:

The Peace Alliance
The United States Institute of Peace

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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9 Responses to “Department of Peace”

  1. Brian |

    While I appreciate the idea, what we do not need is another unconstitutional cabinet position (and the bureaucracy that will inevitably come along with it). Even the ones that are constitutionally authorized do not seem to work very well.

    We are staring at blinding inflation, an out-of-control budget/budget deficit, a debt that will eventually bankrupt the federal government, and a “jobless recovery” (somebody please explain how that works).

    Peace, like freedom, cannot be forced on anyone. A government department, by definition, exerts force.

    The best thing any of us can do is to swear to ourselves that we will never initiate violence, for violence is the way of the savage. We must engage in rational discourse, for irrational, emotion-laden discourse is a precursor to violence. Animals can emote.

    Note that this oath does not preclude violence through self-defense. Pacifism is ultimately untenable, for at some point it will rely on, even demand, the idea that those willing to do violence in self-defense do so, else all pacifists would soon be destroyed.

  2. Tom |

    I have to agree with Brian that as we rush headlong into national bankruptcy, the last thing we need to do is create yet another cabinet-level department. Such organizations with their cabinet secretaries, deputies, and assistants carry a huge overhead cost, and that’s before you get down to a level where people are actually doing things, which likely generates additional unnecessary cost.

    Aside from the cost, I have to wonder exactly what a Department of Peace would do. It kind of assumes that no one in the existing government structure wants peace, when in fact much of the government is devoted to just that pursuit. The Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and Justice (to name just a few) all pursue the goal of peace. State does it through diplomacy, Defense through maintaining a deterrent readiness to defend the nation, Treasury through management of international financial issues, and Justice through protecting the public from criminals and terrorists. Does anyone really think that having yet one more seat in the Cabinet Room for someone wearing a hat with “Peace” embroidered on it will make any difference?

    The agencies mentioned, and others, pretty much belong where they are now. AC/ISA belongs in State functionally, and USAID, previously an independent agency, is being slowly incorporated into State. The Peace Corps, an independent agency by act of Congress, would belong in State if it were to become part of a department.

    The idea of a Department of Peace has always struck me as one of those idealistic initiatives that doesn’t have much functional value. To put it another way, it reminds me a bit of hearing protesters chanting “Give peace a chance,” as though they were the only ones who really, really wanted peace.

    Peace in the world will be realized when all the international bad actors go away. (We aren’t one of them, by the way.) Peace at home will be realized when criminals of various kinds stop trying to deprive citizens of their lives and property. A Department of Peace, however nobly conceived, wouldn’t make any difference.

  3. Harvey |

    I agree almost totally with Brian’s response but let me put in my own, less diplomatic terms.

    A Department of Peace is a waste of time, resources and money in a time when our money is nearly worthless. That’s the least-worst part of the idea however.

    Our country is continually, as it should be (or so I’m told), working for peace around the world we certainly don’t need a “Peace Czar” to announce to the world that the United States is now totally toothless.

    When Obama made his “Peace and Reconciliation” speech in Egypt announcing his “New Beginning” to the Muslim world he had the world’s most ruthless dictators salivating over their thoughts that the United States would no longer get in the way of their plans — indeed this proved true in Honduras where the U.S. is actively opposing one of the very few Democratic governments in Latin America and doing the bidding of a Latin American dictator.

    Bottom line is: Obama is doing a fine job of destroying America’s image and standing as a world power — I have a feeling that this Department of Peace would soon become one of the most powerful cabinet departments and help him finish the job before we had a chance to get a real American president in office.

    I advocate Peace Through Strength — if the enemies of our country, our way of life do not FEAR us, we have much to fear from them.

  4. Harvey |

    A reading suggestion for all of us:

    This was many years ago but fiction author Alan Drury wrote an excellent series of novels that began with the best seller, “Advise and Consent” and ended with “Come Nineveh, Come Tyre.” The series is, of course, fiction but it contains a lot of lessons for those in favor of backing down from our founding principles.

  5. Jan |

    I have a very different take on this. The US has supported dictatorships around the world, especially in latin America, for decades. We have a lot to learn here at home on how to do conflict resolution, rather than kneejerk lashing out at our neighbors. The economic costs for the current wars are staggering. This wasn’t created by Obama or the peaceniks.

  6. Brianna |

    “We have a lot to learn here at home on how to do conflict resolution”

    It would probably make a good start to stop getting involved in conflicts and investing resources in countries that hate our guts. What people don’t seem to realize is that in the Middle East, we have literally created and financed our own enemy. Consider:

    *the terrorists are usually funded with oil money, which ultimately exists because of US and British development of the Middle East oil industry after WWII, which the local governments eventually nationalized.

    *We supported the Shah in Iran, helped them modernize even as they used their power to crush their political opposition, then watched as the political opposition (the ayatollah Khomeini) took over and started (fairly, from ther POV) denouncing us

    *We supported Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s, then went after him twice: once during desert storm and again when we invaded in 2003

    *We supported the mujahadeen against the Reds in Afghanistan in the 1980s, withdrew to watch Afganistan drop into chaos and the rule of the mujahadeen who became the Taliban, then were forced to invade again after 9/11. Ironically, much of the financing for the spread of radical Islam in Afghanistan is coming from the Saudi Wahhabis and funded with Saudi oil money (see first point)

    Al-Quaeda, the Taliban, the despotic regimes, all of them exist at least in part because of our interference in the Middle East. Even in cases where our interference didn’t directly lead to their creation, our hand can be felt in the process and the locals (rightly) view us as, at best, interfering busybodies. So how hard would it really be to simply mind our own business? Pull out of the Middle East, and they won’t be able to blame their terrible economies (they would be, if not financed by the oil industries WE built for them) and despotic regimes on anyone but themselves, maybe leaving us alone for a while. Not to mention withdrawing from a few other of the 130 (not a typo) places where we maintain a military presence around the globe. Stop giving other countries a target upon which to vent their rage, and maybe the amount of venting will start to drop off a bit.

  7. Tom |

    Great comment, Brianna! I think you’re right. I would point out that this isn’t the result of a lack of desire for peace as such. It’s just the result of plain bad policy.

    There are some problems, however, with the idea that we should “pull out of the Middle East.” Here are three:

    — Assisting Israel in their continuing struggle to defend themselves against the threat to their very existence is a critical U.S. national interest. We can’t abandon them.

    — Dependence on oil from the region is a fact of life we can’t ignore. We could do a lot to help ourselves, like reasonable exploration and drilling in U.S. territory and offshore, building more nuclear power plants, and instituting practical and affordable policies to consume less oil.

    — Other countries, some with intentions inimical to our national interests (such as Russia), will continue to be engaged in the Middle East, to our detriment. This requires that we maintain at least some power and influence in the region.

    We can attend to these national interests generally without maintaining massive numbers of troops on the ground and engaging in wars. However, we shouldn’t be in the foolish business of trying to build democracy in primitive societies and forcibly changing governments. An offshore presence, with limited ground facilities for support and for limited kinds of operations, would be enough to defend our interests.

  8. Brian Bagent |

    Without US, Canadian, British, and Dutch engineers, even the easy-to-reach oil in the middle east would probably just sit there waiting to be drilled, even with everything we’ve provided over there in the way of education and assistance. Of the world powers remaining, the only ones with the know-how to get it done are the Russians, Germans, and French, and none of them very well (at least not by our standards).

    If we could convince what I call “the big four” to get out of places like the ME and Venezuela, the world would quickly find out how much they cannot do without us. I’m fine with that. We’d limp along for a while, but we could make it.

  9. Brianna |

    Tom – Agreed. I realize that a policy of complete withdrawal is an unrealistic goal. But I still think (and I think you agree) that there is a lot that can be done without sacrificing our vital national and economic interests.

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