Bush's plan for a Civilian Reserve Corps stalls

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 27, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Pledges, promises, proposals — they're the meat of any State of the Union speech. But like many a wish, they don't always come true.

President Bush, who once dismissed "nation-building" and failed to prepare adequately for rebuilding Iraq after invading it, made a significant shift in his State of the Union address a year ago.

He proposed creating a small, all-volunteer force of U.S. civilians with specialized skills who could deploy on short notice to nations shattered by war, to help them rebuild. It was an acknowledgement that while the Pentagon was given the lead in postwar Iraq, reconstruction is often a job best suited for civilian agencies.

But the initiative, called the Civilian Reserve Corps, has gone nowhere. It's been a victim of congressional skepticism and, some critics say, ambivalence from the Bush administration.

Congress last May approved $50 million for the plan, enough to create a 500-person reserve. But Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has blocked legislation permitting the State Department to spend the money.

Coburn reportedly is angered over the performance of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in Iraq and Afghanistan and wants funds and responsibility to remain with the military.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an op-ed written last month with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., urged Congress to free the money.

"If we are to win the war on terrorism, we cannot allow states to crumble or remain incapable of governing," they wrote.

Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has championed the idea, calling in a speech last November for a "dramatic increase" in spending on civilian efforts in the areas of reconstruction, public diplomacy and foreign aid.

But Kathleen Hicks, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right Washington policy institute, said that behind the scenes, the White House hasn't pushed very hard for the civilian corps. "It's kind of a race against time and apathy," she said.

Ambassador John Herbst, the State Department's coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization, said in an interview that the reserve corps remains a priority for Bush and Rice.

Herbst said his office, which has grown to 88 people in less than four years, has dispatched personnel to Haiti, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Sudan's Darfur region. "We've had folks all over the place where bullets are flying," he said.

He said significant planning has been done for the Civilian Reserve Corps and two related standby units that are composed of U.S. government experts.

Carlos Pascual, Herbst's predecessor, agreed that much has been done, but he said the effort suffers from a lack of resources.

"That the process is frustrating, and goes in fits and starts, is certainly no surprise," said Pascual, now vice president of the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research organization.

He said he didn't expect Bush to focus on the issue in Monday's speech.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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