By MARK D. GEARAN
Published: October 4, 2005
OF the many ways that Americans serve the public good, service in the armed forces holds a special pre-eminence. For obvious reasons, the tremendous personal risks undertaken and sacrifices made by armed service members on behalf of all Americans are elevated and more poignant during war time.
But there's another way to serve the public, and that's through the Peace Corps. The idea behind the Peace Corps, created at the height of the cold war, was a simple one: Americans - serving as representatives of the American people, not the United States government - would promote economic development and international understanding by working as volunteers alongside people in other countries.
Obviously the armed forces and the Peace Corps serve the national interest, but they do so in fundamentally different ways. Making this distinction clear - letting the world know that the Peace Corps is an independent entity - has been a basic tenet of American policy for decades.
Unfortunately, this line has been blurred. In August, the military began promoting a recruitment program that allows soldiers, after a period of active and reserve duty, to fulfill their commitment by serving in the Peace Corps. By 2007, about 4,300 recruits will be eligible for this option.
How did this happen? Three years ago, a provision for this enlistment incentive was inserted in a defense authorization bill and enacted into law without hearings or any apparent consultation with Peace Corps officials. However well-intentioned, this provision unwittingly abandoned longstanding policy that is essential to the Peace Corps mission and the personal safety of individual volunteers.
Peace Corps service - by a law enacted in 1961 - has never been an exemption for military service obligations, including the draft. This distinction was meant to signal that Peace Corps service was different in nature from military service.
Perceptions matter. Over five decades, members of Congress and presidents of both parties have recognized that for Peace Corps volunteers to succeed, their actual and perceived service must be what it purports to be. Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said it best: "To make the Peace Corps an instrument of foreign policy would be to rob it of its contributions to foreign policy." Indeed, it was President Ronald Reagan who signed into law a bill 24 years ago that recognized this unique, essential character of the Peace Corps and made it an independent federal agency.
The Peace Corps conducts programs only in places where it is invited. Peace Corps volunteers are neither federal employees nor official representatives of the United States government. They receive a modest living allowance, not a salary, and have no diplomatic privileges or immunities. They live in homes with host-country families, and they are protected, not by security forces, but by the concern of neighbors and colleagues in the communities in which they live and work. By law, they are required to become proficient in the local language and to conduct themselves in a manner that respects the local culture.
Damaging the trust and goodwill that has been established around the world by adherence to these policies would be devastating to the Peace Corps, in some places closing the door to Peace Corps volunteers and even subjecting them to heightened risk.
Tucking in a provision that makes Peace Corps service an incentive to boost armed forces recruitment was a mistake. President Bush should ask Congress to repeal this provision before the current session adjourns.
Mark D. Gearan, president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, was Peace Corps director from 1995 to 1999.