JUST WHEN it seemed that American public diplomacy couldn't get any worse, along comes Congress.
In an era of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, you might think that the government would be devising ways to ensure that the face of America overseas is not solely that of a soldier. Instead, Congress is now doing the opposite: taking the nation's oldest civilian overseas volunteer organization - the Peace Corps - and sending soldiers its way.
The military has officially has begun encouraging its recruits to serve in the Peace Corps, allowing them to count time in one toward service in the other. The plan originated in the Senate as the Call to Service Act and later was incorporated into the 2003 defense legislation. It languished as a small pilot program until this summer, when the Pentagon aggressively began promoting it. The Army News Service touts a story that a "15-month enlistment option" - the shortest tour ever - is now offered when combined with the Peace Corps.
Congress is right about one thing: We do need a renewed call to service. But not from those already serving. As it stands, there aren't even enough spots for American civilians who want to join the Peace Corps. Today, only about one in three who applies is able to serve. With more military personnel filling these coveted spots, there will be less room for others who want to go abroad.
As recently as 2002, there were signs of progress. In his State of the Union address that year, President Bush called for the doubling of the Peace Corps. Yet the total size of the entire corps has grown by less than 10 percent, capping at a paltry 7,733. Each year, its entering class is now roughly the size of a couple of urban high schools. Lack of funding continues to plague the agency, but adding a military dimension to the Peace Corps could permanently cripple it.
Besides, isn't there something tragically wrong when the military needs to tempt young recruits by offering the Peace Corps as incentive?
This new scheme to blend the Peace Corps and the military camouflages the real problems underlying both. It dilutes the military mission, takes the focus away from real recruitment troubles and ultimately endangers Peace Corps volunteers.
If people around the world begin to see no difference between the Peace Corps and the U.S. military - if the Peace Corps loses its cherished independence - then the most effective public diplomacy program we have is finished. And President John F. Kennedy's grand vision of young people serving their country in the cause of peace will die with it.
To returned volunteers, the separation between the agency and the military is sacrosanct. There is good reason for this: If the wall were to chip away even slightly, volunteers could risk becoming fair military targets.
The danger is real. University students in Bangladesh recently welcomed the new batch of 60 volunteers into the country by protesting their presence and chanting "Down with imperialism."
Why not have soldiers be the primary face of America abroad? There is nothing wrong with clinging, as many soldiers do, to that anachronistic notion that their talents are better served by non-nation building tasks. And while the military is viewed positively in the United States, it's not always the same everywhere else. In many countries rebounding from tyranny, for example, the simple sight of a uniform may mask the good intentions of our brave enlisted men and women.
Those in the Peace Corps should have the utmost respect for the men and women serving in the armed forces. They could also learn a lot from them. The truth is, the Peace Corps should toughen up. If it continues to cut and run from every dangerous place, it would soon be nowhere. Just this summer, the Peace Corps has pulled out of three countries: Uzbekistan, Haiti and Gabon. Yet the answer is better training not replacing civilians with soldiers.
In her recent confirmation hearings to take charge of our nation's public diplomacy, Karen Hughes pledged to listen more. She should be calling on all Americans to go out and listen en masse, to spend two years meeting fellow citizens of the world while volunteering overseas. Instead, she made no mention of the Peace Corps in her entire prepared testimony.
Her strategy follows, what she calls, the "4 e's - engagement, exchanges, education and empowerment." For exchange, she offers this as a grand vision for American cooperation with the world: "We want more American young people to study and travel abroad."
Travel and study are both well and good, but real exchange is forged not in days or weeks but in years of sustained immersion. It is done by forming lasting relationships, learning customs and speaking the local language. We often hear whines about the dearth of Arabic speakers in the U.S. military or intelligence agencies, but the Peace Corps - with its expert language training - goes to only two countries where Arabic is spoken.
The Peace Corps is the last best hope for American public diplomacy. TV programs, sleek advertising, even more listening by government officials, will never be a replacement for sustained civilian person-to-person contact.
Avi M Spiegel, a former Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright scholar in Morocco, recently received his master's degree in theology from Harvard and his JD from New York University Law School.