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Peace Corps robust, growing

Volunteers abound after Bush call to double ranks for work in Muslim states

Sunday, March 17, 2002

By Rachel Smolkin, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Four decades after President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps and launched ardent volunteers on the "great common cause of world development," President Bush is now seeking to expand it and "extend the compassion of our country to every part of the world."

USA Freedom Corps

Like their parents and grandparents in 1961, young Americans today are responding enthusiastically. Traffic on the Peace Corps Web site has skyrocketed since January when Bush called for doubling the number of volunteers and sending them to more Muslim countries. As of last week, potential volunteers had logged 53 million hits on the web site and requested 18,000 applications, which was a 54 percent increase over last year at this time.

"The response has been fantastic," Bush said last week in Philadelphia. "The Peace Corps is an opportunity to spread American values throughout the world."

But as the expansion begins, former officials and returned volunteers worry that it might try to expand too rapidly and endanger volunteers by sending them to countries where anti-American sentiment is widespread. Some fear that Bush's good-versus-evil rhetoric in the war on terror and his explicit call for volunteers to "spread American values" might undermine the Corps' original mission -- to foster development and mutual understanding.

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"The mission is to share," said returned volunteer Iris Winter, 29, of Squirrel Hill, who trained teachers in South Africa from 1998 to 2000. "This new way doesn't sound like sharing; it sounds like shoving it down their throats."

Bush proposes to double the size of the Peace Corps within five years, to about 14,000 volunteers, bringing it closer to its 1966 peak of 15,556 than it has been in decades. Bush also wants to send volunteers to additional countries, including Afghanistan, East Timor, Peru, Swaziland, Chad, Botswana, Azerbaijan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Harris Wofford, a former Democratic senator from Pennsylvania who helped launch the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration, said he is delighted by Bush's proposal.

"I salute the president for starting the Peace Corps back on its mission to be a serious and large American effort in the rest of the world," said Wofford, who now chairs the nonprofit group America's Promise.

Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami and a former Peace Corps volunteer, said she celebrated when she learned of the planned expansion.

"You plunk a young American down somewhere on earth, and people learn about Americans," said Shalala, who was Health and Human Services secretary in the Clinton administration. "They're the best communicators. Young people in that country ask, 'What does your father do? What does your mother do? What kind of house do you live in? What kind of car do you drive? Do you pray?'"

Shalala fondly recalls her own years as a volunteer during the 1960s in southern Iran, where she taught English and learned about Muslim culture.

About 20 percent of volunteers currently serve in countries where Muslims make up at least 40 percent of the population, including Jordan, Morocco and Mali. By expanding into more Muslim countries, Bush hopes to strengthen U.S. connections in the Muslim world and discourage anti-American radicalism.

"We're fighting an enemy that really can't stand the values spread by the Peace Corps, which means that the Peace Corps must be reinvigorated," Bush said last month. "The Peace Corps itself stands for what we fight for."

Some former volunteers worry about tying the Peace Corps too closely to the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

When Kennedy created the Corps at the height of the Cold War on March 1, 1961, he emphasized that it was "not designed as an instrument of diplomacy or propaganda or ideological conflict."

Mark Gearan, who directed the Peace Corps during the Clinton administration, said it is important to preserve the Corps' unique character and mission.

"Peace Corps volunteers themselves have built a worldwide reputation as representing the best of the American people, not as official representatives of the U.S. government or its policies," Gearan wrote recently in a newspaper commentary. "This was the brilliance of the program -- to sponsor citizen service that is altruistic and focused on solving real problems, while being divorced from political considerations and strategic foreign policy objectives."

A Peace Corps assessment prepared for the Congressional Research Service also notes the difficulty of sending volunteers to some Muslim countries. It said many countries strategic to U.S. foreign policy interests "might be considered unsafe for Americans over the foreseeable future. Despite the appeal of using Peace Corps volunteers to convey U.S. culture and values directly to the grassroots of Islamic countries, policymakers may be unable to meet policy needs without compromising on safety."

A Peace Corps assessment team has traveled to Afghanistan to determine whether the country is safe enough for members of the Crisis Corps, which is made up of former Peace Corps workers, who would provide short-term assistance and work only in Kabul. An assessment team is also evaluating the situation in Pakistan.

State Department travel warnings remain in effect for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Over the past decade, volunteers have been evacuated from 26 countries due to political instability or civil unrest. After Sept. 11, volunteers were pulled out of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the Kyrgyz Republic because of their proximity to Afghanistan; they have returned to the Kyrgyz Republic and are expected to resume service soon in the other countries.

"I really support having more Peace Corps volunteers, but I'm really worried about putting them in places where the local law enforcement is not going to be able to protect them from fanatics that we know are there," said Steve Berman, 52, a former Peace Corps volunteer who grew up in Detroit and now works as a brain researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"If there are Peace Corps volunteers in countries like Pakistan, where there are a lot of people who are very upfront about saying they want to kill Americans, ... there's going to be tragedies unless they really control where these people go," Berman said.

Asad Hayauddin, press attache for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, disagreed and said Peace Corps volunteers should be safe if they remain in Pakistan's urban centers.

Shalala and others say the Peace Corps will face "huge" administrative challenges as it attempts to double the size of its volunteer force. The Peace Corps assessment done for Congress notes that a rapid increase in size "might exacerbate existing weaknesses or create strains in its operations."

Such potential obstacles do not dim the Peace Corps' luster for potential recipients. Elin Suleymanov, spokesman for the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington, said "it would be a great thing" if Bush sends the Peace Corps to his country, which is predominantly Muslim but views itself as secular. "I don't think there's a better way to promote understanding than these kinds of programs, especially the Peace Corps," he said.

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