February 2, 2002 - New York Times: Subtle Diplomacy From Peace Corps

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Subtle Diplomacy From Peace Corps

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Subtle Diplomacy From Peace Corps*

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Subtle Diplomacy From Peace Corps


Filed at 1:44 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- They don't carry American flags or negotiate treaties. They don't even have a special stamp in their passport to identify them as unique from other Americans abroad.

Yet Peace Corps workers are ambassadors of sorts -- subtle diplomats in a post-Sept. 11 world that finds America promoting itself more aggressively than before.

And President Bush wants to double their numbers abroad, steering more of them to countries that he believes most misunderstand America.

"We're expanding the Peace Corps to take our values and compassion into the Islamic world," Bush said Friday.

The idea has support in Congress, a place seeded with Peace Corps veterans. "There is a real disconnect about what America stands for" in Muslim countries, said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who worked for the corps in the Dominican Republic.

These days, corps volunteers are working in hospitals, helping to start small businesses, teaching English and doing other good works. They are expected to promote American values by example, not the hard sell.

"We wouldn't ask them to take on a political role," said Ellen Field, a spokeswoman for the agency.

"We didn't have private cars and we didn't live in compounds," said Nancy Cunningham, who was in Afghanistan in 1966. "Volunteers were viewed differently."

It's those differences that neither the corps nor its volunteers want to see changed.

To be sure, Peace Corps volunteers never say they work for the government even though the agency is paid for and overseen by Congress and its director is appointed by the president. In addition, Peace Corps offices are typically not in U.S. embassies.

"We were representatives of the American people, not of the American government," said Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., who worked as a lawyer in Somalia for the corps.

Sometimes, just showing up for the assignment is enough.

"I was walking into town and heard children shouting, 'The gringo is coming!' recalled Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., a Japanese-American who served in El Salvador. "Well, they ran past me looking for a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy.

"One of my jobs was to let people know America's full of lots of different folks."

Plans are already being made to get the corps back into Afghanistan once it is safer to go. The corps left in 1979 when Soviet forces occupied the country.

The first to go to the Central Asian country would be part of the Crisis Corps -- experienced former volunteers sent to respond to immediate needs after a war or natural disaster, said Field. They would help with basic services such as health care and sanitation.

Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has taken on former advertising executive Charlotte Beers to head its public diplomacy efforts and engaged Hollywood celebrities to promote America abroad.

But Peace Corps workers are the soft-pedalers.

"It breaks down to a people-to-people exchange," said John Coyne, who taught English in Ethiopia from 1962 to 1964. "You live with them, you eat with them, you get to know them." That may give Peace Corps workers more legitimacy than other Americans abroad.

"They realize you are not the CIA," said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-N.Y., who farmed in Nepal. "You're better off trying to show by example than perhaps trying to proselytize."

For Cunningham, that meant riding her bike to the Jalalabad hospital where she worked, as her Afghan colleagues did. Petri organized a film series for northern Somalis "hungry for the English language." Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., alongside his duties as an English teacher in Fiji, advised a women's business cooperative.

"Sometimes it's just the simple things like showing up for work every day and not taking bribes to do your job," Cunningham said.

More than 160,000 volunteers have gone to 135 countries since President Kennedy created the Peace Corps four decades ago. There are now about 7,000 deployed.

Bush wants to bring their numbers close to 15,000 -- a level not seen since 1966. To do that he has requested an additional $200 million over the next five years, which would boost the corps' budget about 15 percent each year.

This year's Peace Corps budget is $275 million.


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