Americans can win any war on the battlefield, but we have not learned how to win the peace. We are losing the fight to win over the people we are trying to help. But there is a way to right our course for the future.
Primarily, the US should aim to help people achieve better health, education, housing, and jobs in countries that need it the most. On that front, America has achieved some successes: the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, recovery efforts following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and aid in the wake of Pakistan's devastating earthquake two years ago (making Pakistan one of the very few nations where approval of the US has risen in recent years). Now, however, only the US military has the means to such ends.
US foreign aid is primarily structured along impersonal, government-to-government lines, and most government agencies have proved ineffective working on a people-to-people level. The one government entity with a positive record in this area is the Peace Corps. But despite the Peace Corps' success since its inception in 1961, its budget has remained small.
President Kennedy wanted 100,000 volunteers overseas within 10 years. Today, budgetary limitations have kept the number of volunteers down to 8,000. However, there are 190,000 alumni, represented by the National Peace Corps Association. They yearn for continuing involvement in a mission that has transformed not only their lives and those of people they have helped, but also their perspectives on the world.
Among the alumni is Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd (D), who served as a volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Based on that experience, he is sponsoring a bill to double the size of the Peace Corps. In the months after 9/11, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and President Bush both advocated major growth of the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, there was little follow-up.
Like Senator Dodd, other alumni want to help now, and their expertise is invaluable. Most are mature leaders in business, education, government, and the nonprofit world. Many are primed for a new career challenge that a managerial role in the Peace Corps could offer. They have the motivation to resist outside influences and to distinguish an expanded role for the Peace Corps from the political and bureaucratic vagaries of government agencies.
To have a significant impact, the Peace Corps needs to be at least 10 to 20 times larger. But even with renewed alumni participation, it cannot grow quickly enough on its own. Through its separate, distinct operation, it must enlist the vast array of nonprofits doing grass-roots work abroad.
The time is right politically to broaden the scope and impact of the Peace Corps. Its objectives are nonpartisan and should be supported by Republicans and Democrats. We must seek alternative means to ending wars and winning the peace. The cost of an expanded Peace Corps would be roughly 1 percent of the current US military budget. Can we afford not to act promptly?
• Arthur S. Obermayer is president of the Obermayer Foundation, which focuses on social justice issues. Kevin F.F. Quigley is president of the National Peace Corps Association. This essay first appeared in The Baltimore Sun. ©2007 Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.