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Laurence Leamer Headshot

The Peace Corps Crisis

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On a cold inauguration afternoon, hundreds of former volunteers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue carrying flags from the 139 countries in which the Peace Corps has served. It was a powerful moment as they saw confirmed that they were part of a 195,000 strong army of former volunteers who embodied President Kennedy's most enduring visible legacy.

Most of them entered the Peace Corps fresh out of college and have gone on to be Super Citizens, bringing idealism and commitment to whatever their endeavors. Many of them have gone back to the developing world working for NGOS, as diplomats or aid officials, carrying with them in their kit bags an intimate awareness that they had gained living for two years with the people they served.

As powerful as that experience had been, as large as they contributions many of them have made to their communities and the world, as they walked arm in arm they knew that they were part of a promise that had not been fulfilled, a dream not yet realized.

The Peace Corps is the embodiment of philosopher William James' brilliant idea of a moral equivalent to war, an army of youth seeking the risk and challenge they need to become true adults bearing the laurel branches of peace not the weapons of war. Kennedy envisioned a million volunteers across the world, an army of such magnitude and moral power that it would belittle the Pentagon's soldiers, and create a new world of understanding and hope.

The Peace Corps reached its largest size in 1966 when there were 15,000 volunteers. There are 7,800 volunteers now on an earth peopled by close to double the inhabitants, and although the Peace Corps goes on, it has receded from the consciousness of most Americans.

As the former volunteers marched that day, they knew their time had come once again. There was a new president for a new age and Obama was one of them. He had been a community organizer in Chicago and he had promised to double the size of the Peace Corps by its fiftieth anniversary in 2011 and to expand massively the domestic volunteer corps.

As the group passed in front of the reviewing stand at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the new young president appeared visibly moved, and those in the march knew that they were at the beginning of a great new era for the Peace Corps when it would assume its rightful place as America's shining presence in the developing world.

It is now four months later, and the flags have been put away, and the shouts of exhilaration have grown still. While Obama is building the domestic program up to at massive 270,000 volunteers, he intends to increase the Peace Corps budget only 10 percent, and envisions a 20 percent increase in volunteers by 2012. It would appear a betrayal of his campaign promise and of his ideals, a tragic failure to change America's image and its very presence in the world.

A mark of that failure is that there are only two Arab countries that have volunteers, and while American drones fly above Pakistan there are no volunteers in the villages beneath. Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, has asked for volunteers but with this new budget there will be few Americans to live in the world's fourth biggest country.

Obama has a desk full of nothing but massive, intransigent problems and although he perhaps deserves some blame for a failure of nerve, most of the responsibility lies elsewhere. The Peace Corps bureaucracy told the new administration that it was incapable of doubling the volunteer corps by 2011 and asked for little more than what the President wants to give them.

The Peace Corps is a broken bureaucracy. It has lost its way. It is a shell of what it once was. And in the most important moment in Peace Corps history since the Kennedy years, it is unready and unwell. It is concerned more with the security of volunteers than their service. It is impassioned only by sinecures and ease.

Obama could not force the Peace Corps bureaucracy to do what it is incapable of doing, but he can appoint a new director who will radically reform the organization. James Arena-DeRosa is apparently the leading candidate. His resume is far thinner than those of any of the other names being bandied about.

For the last nine years Arena-DeRosa has been the Peace Corps regional director in Boston, a mid level bureaucrat whose primary responsibility was recruitment. The Peace Corps has a famous rule limiting service to five years. That Arena-DeRosa and so many others have held on far longer suggests how far the bureaucracy has fallen from its original ideals. He has been a creature of the very organization that must be changed. He has never managed anything important in his life. Many of those concerned with the future of the Peace Corps think that Arena-DeRosa would be an inexplicable choice. His friends attest to his wonderful qualities and his concerns for the Peace Crops. But does this man have the abilities to do what must be done?

Those serving the president in the White House involved with the Peace Corps appear not to care very much. It's just another pesky issue to deal with and move on. They are making a dreadful mistake. There are all kinds of talented, unusual people who can do this job. What the president must choose is a new director will take the position only if he or she is mandated for reform. He must appoint someone capable of turning it into an organization that is not seen as the aging child of the Sixties, but as a passionately informed player in the world of the 21st century. If Arena-DeRosa is that man, fine. If he is not, the administration must move on.

The president must listen to those who speak with wisdom of our world. "We've become accustomed to the title of 'military super-power,' forgetting the qualities that got us there -- not just the power of our weapons, but the discipline and valor and the code of conduct of our men and women in uniform. The Marshall Plan, and the Peace Corps, and all those initiatives that show our commitment to working with other nations to pursue the ideals of opportunity and equality and freedom that have made us who we are. That's what made us a super power. "

That wasn't JFK. That was Barack Obama in his commencement address at Arizona State University yesterday.

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