A stunning new building on the Mall in Washington will soon open to tourists and scholars from around the world. But members of Congress are taking aim at its occupant.
The little-known Institute of Peace is in a war for survival. Perhaps it was the building that grabbed attention on Capitol Hill. Designed by famed architect Moshe Safdie, it symbolizes a grand vision of peace, perhaps too grand in a time of budget-crunching. With lawmakers searching for programs to cut and ideological points to score, Peace is on the chopping block, along with Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio, and Pell Grants—“the four Ps,” notes Tara Sonenshine, who heads the institute’s outreach program.
Created by Congress in 1984 with President Reagan’s blessing, the Institute of Peace made do with rented space until just a few weeks ago, when it moved into the permanent home overlooking the Potomac that is drawing so much flak. With funding that is modest by Washington standards, some $40 million this year, it had drawn consistent support no matter which party was running Congress. That changed with the last election. First there were hints from congressional staffers that the building might be a problem, and in a February op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, liberal New York Democrat Anthony Weiner and Utah Republican and Tea Party favorite Jason Chaffetz called for an end to federal subsidies.
“Support for what we do runs from peaceniks to the military,” says institute president Richard Solomon, “with much of the strongest support from the military.”
Arguing that the institute’s peacemaking work duplicates some State Department functions, Weiner and Chaffetz sponsored an amendment to zero out the institute’s funding. The amendment passed with overwhelming Republican support, plus about a quarter of the Democratic caucus. “It was folly to build this building,” Weiner says, calling the sweeping architectural marvel “over the top” and something that taxpayers should not keep underwriting. “Everybody is trying to figure out ways to save money, and that includes people who are in favor of peace,” he says. “The question is not whether they do valuable things; it’s whether the taxpayers should have been funding their organization.”
Unlike programs such as Planned Parenthood and NPR, which enjoy near-unanimous Democratic support, the institute is getting hit from all sides. Longtime peace activist Colman McCarthy assailed it in a Washington Post opinion piece as too establishment and too much of a Republican bastion. If it’s truly worthwhile, he argued, its backers should find some rich donors to pay for it.
This is an argument playing out across Washington as lawmakers try to separate what’s essential and what’s simply nice to have, as a Post editorial put it. Veteran diplomat Richard Solomon, who has headed the institute since 1993, is not accustomed to having to justify the pursuit of peace.
“Support for what we do runs from peaceniks to the military,” he says, “with much of the strongest support from the military.” An array of top brass is rushing to the rescue, with supporters including Gen. David Petraeus and retired generals Anthony Zinni and Wesley Clark. George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, attests to the institute’s effectiveness, as does Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On the Hill, John McCain is a strong supporter. Former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz, now 90—the new building’s Great Hall is named for him—personally lobbied members of Congress.
With that kind of firepower, you’d think the institute’s funding would be secured. But to congressional budget-cutters, its nitty-gritty work of conflict resolution in far-flung places seems vague and doesn’t translate into votes back home. The institute does essential but mostly unheralded work in cross-cultural understanding and tribal reconciliation in places like Nigeria, Congo, and Yemen, in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, where it has offices in Baghdad and Kabul.
Its trainers operate in that fragile space between war and peace. During the height of the Iraq War, in 2007, the 10th Mountain Division called upon the institute to resolve a conflict with 40 sheiks. Success generally means preventing something from happening, or keeping a situation from getting worse, the kind of thing that doesn’t make a good press release.
The land beneath the new building originally belonged to the Navy. In 1996, when Solomon asked for the plot, then-Navy Secretary Richard Danzig agreed to transfer it to the institute, saying “If you can keep us out of one war,” it’s worth it. Since the institute is a creation of Congress, it took an act of Congress to allow Solomon and his 15-member bipartisan board to raise private money for construction. It was tough going until a member of the board, Robinson West, a Republican and oil industry executive, got the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens to attach $100 million for the building to the defense authorization bill in 2005. The board was then able to raise an additional $50 million in private funds. The 2008 ground breaking for the new building was attended by President Bush, congressional leaders, and an array of diplomats, including Henry Kissinger.
When Solomon joined the institute 17 years ago, a Republican appropriator told him that he’d never be taken seriously if he didn’t have a building; that bricks and mortar were the only way to ensure congressional funding each year. The spot he found almost by accident was a parking lot at the time, but Solomon discovered it was steeped in history. George Washington initially surveyed the area, thought it would make a good federal city, and in 1783 sent out a circular advocating “adoption of a proper peace establishment...”
Now the building seems more like an albatross. With strong bipartisan support in the Senate, the institute is likely to eke out some money for this year, at least. In the meantime, Israeli President Shimon Peres is coming to dinner in the Great Hall next week, and among the members of Congress on the guest list are some who voted against funding the institute.
Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek.