WASHINGTON, April 22 (UPI) -- The normally low-profile and somewhat-staid United States Institute of Peace, a federally funded think tank, was thrust into the public spotlight recently when the White House came under fire from a Muslim advocacy group for nominating a controversial and outspoken conservative scholar and commentator to the organization's board of directors.
The fracas has cast a spotlight on the institute, known as USIP, whose mission, even within the Washington think tank community, remains somewhat of a mystery.
"It is a think tank that you hear about only occasionally and even then not much," a top official at one prominent Washington think tank told United Press International. "My sense is that part of the reason for this is that they don't seem to do that much, and seem, even more than most think tanks, to be a holding place for government people (who are between jobs)."
Earlier this month, President George W. Bush nominated Daniel Pipes -- the expert whose presence raised the objections from the Muslim group -- for a seat on the USIP board of directors, along with outspoken Republican Charles Horner, a former Reagan administration official and a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, and Steve Krasner, a political science professor and senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a Washington-based Muslim rights group, has called on the White House to rescind the nomination of Pipes, whom the group describes as the nation's "leading Islamophobe." However, conservative and liberal-leaning foreign policy analysts privately defended Pipes as a well-regarded academic whose ongoing fight with CAIR has brought him undeserving criticism as a racist.
A longtime critic of radical Islam, Pipes heads the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank, and is a columnist for the New York Post and Jerusalem Post. Long before Sept. 11, he warned of the threat that Islamic fundamentalists posed to the United States. Since the terror attacks, Pipes' continued calls for the careful monitoring of the Muslim presence in the United States have raised harsh criticisms from U.S. Muslim groups, especially CAIR.
Pipes would not comment on his nomination or CAIR's campaign to block Senate approval of his appointment, but he did tell UPI that militant Islamic groups like CAIR overshadow the voices of moderate Muslims in the United States.
"Rather than argue with me about the validity of my arguments, they instigate attacks on me and try to discredit me," said Pipes. "Perhaps they believe that is the better way to protect themselves, rather than talking in substantive terms."
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR, told UPI that the group had nothing to debate with Pipes and opposed his nomination because he has a long history of attempting to marginalize and disenfranchise the American Muslim community.
"We obviously regard ourselves as moderates and most of the people who criticize him are moderates, but his definition of a moderate is any Muslim that agrees with him," said Hooper. "We feel he is an inappropriate choice for an institution that seeks the peaceful resolution of international conflict, because generating conflict is what he does."
CAIR's criticism raises questions of just what the USIP does with its federal funding, why it exists, and who oversees its activities?
USIP was established by Congress during the Reagan administration, with a mission to promote the peaceful conflict management of international conflicts. The federal government is the sole funding source for the think tank and provided $16.2 million for its operations in 2003.
John Brinkley, a spokesman for USIP, said the think tank is required by law to be a non-partisan institution, and is mandated only to address issues related to overseas conflict.
"Our role is research, education and training with the purpose of assisting the avoidance or the resolution of international conflict," he said.
This work includes traditional think tank pursuits such as publishing papers and conducting seminars and workshops. In addition, the USIP works with educators at the high school and college level -- both within the United States and abroad -- to incorporate conflict resolution studies into their curricula.
USIP also conducts overseas training on how democratic government works, for government officials in post-conflict nations like Afghanistan and East Timor. It also has a training program for non-governmental organizations that work in post-conflict situations.
U.S. law mandates that the 12 members of the USIP board must equally represent the major political parties. The board oversees all grants made to analysts outside the think tank, along with a fellowship program for both American and foreign-born academics. In addition, the board has total control over the funding of any new initiatives undertaken by the think tank.
The current board consists of conservative and liberal officials, including its chairman, Chester A. Crocker, a professor of strategic studies at the Georgetown University and a former Reagan administration official, and vice chairman Seymour Martin Lipset, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution.
Among the more liberal board members are Clinton administration appointees Betty F. Bumpers, founder and former president of Peace Links, a grass-roots group dedicated to promoting alternatives to violence, and Holly Burkhalter, the advocacy director for Physicians for Human Rights and the former advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.
Richard H. Solomon, the president of the USIP since 1993, was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the administration of George H.W. Bush and has a long history of government service at senior levels of the State Department and the National Security Council during Republican administrations.
Despite having what is considered a major budget for a smaller think tank, and some well-recognized analysts -- such as Tamara Cofman Wittes, a specialist on the Middle East, and Francis M. Deng, a leading international expert on internally displaced people -- USIP is not viewed as having a significant presence in the Washington policy community. This can be attributed in part to the fact that much of its work occurs overseas.
Although it has a bipartisan board, conservative leadership and a congressional mandate to remain bipartisan, several think tank officials around Washington said the general view of the USIP is that its analysts are mostly liberal-leaning academics. One conservative analyst said this view could be attributed to the fact that the fields of international conflict resolution and peace issues typically attract more left-of-center thinkers than conservatives ones. He added that despite its lack of a strong presence in the Washington policy community, USIP is well-known on the ground in the countries in which it works because its programs create informal ties that ultimately function as a tool of U.S. diplomacy.
Several analysts also said that the nomination of Pipes and Horner to the USIP board was a clear signal from the Bush administration about what it expects from the think tank.
"I think you can assume that the White House wants these guys (the conservative nominees) to provide some careful oversight of the institute's programs," said one conservative think tank official. "Why else would you ask someone like Dan Pipes to come aboard? He and Horner are not wallflowers. It is a sign that they (the liberal-leaning analysts at USIP) are going to be watched very carefully."