- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

President Bush’s call last week for a Civilian Reserve Corps to help troubled countries is either a solid idea whose time has come or yet another throwaway applause line in a State of the Union speech and it’s up to Mr. Bush to decide how it turns out.

For a proposal during the annual address to Congress arguably the biggest presidential stage this one is mostly bare-bones. There is no plan or legislation, just a pledge to work with Congress to try to create something.

“The big question right now is whether the White House is really going to seriously act on it,” said Carlos Pascual, who worked on the idea when he was director of the State Department’s Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization. “I think it’s the right thing to do. I’m glad the president raised it. It’s not going to happen unless the president, the national security advisor, the secretary of state pick up the phone” to Congress.

“If the White House wants to make it not just a presidential throwaway line in a speech but into a reality that can actually be a useful tool they have to show a little bit of leadership on it,” said Mr. Pascual, who is now director of foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

In his address last week, Mr. Bush coupled the idea to his proposal to increase the active-duty size of the U.S. military by 92,000 troops over five years.

“A second task we can take on together is to design and establish a volunteer Civilian Reserve Corps,” the president said. “It would ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them. It would give people across America who do not wear the uniform a chance to serve in the defining struggle of our time.”

Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman, said the president often hears from Americans who want to help out in some way. But she said it is just a proposed idea at this point.

“He wants to talk to Congress about this idea and how they can work together on a positive, bipartisan opportunity that would demonstrate the great skill and generosity of the American people,” she said.

Melanie Anderton, a spokeswoman at the State Department, said the reserve corps would complement a surge of U.S. government employees that the State Department is already building.

Both the active-duty and civilian reserve concepts grew out of trying to meet the challenges of a post-September 11 world, in which failed states can become breeding grounds for dangers to the U.S.

It is not the first time that Mr. Bush has proposed expanding voluntary national service.

Five years ago, he created the USA Freedom Corps, a loose coalition of volunteers helping out in their communities, and called for all Americans to donate their time. He also called for doubling the size of the Peace Corps.

Mr. Pascual said he thinks that the White House is trying to show that the president has learned lessons from the problems with Iraq reconstruction and that this policy gives him something to point to as progress.

But he said the burden is on Mr. Bush to prove he is serious, and said the lack of specifics “is indicative of the lack of leadership around it, the lack of commitment.” One test, he said, will be whether the White House funds it in next week’s 2008 budget proposal.

Mr. Pascual said that during his time as director of the State Department’s reconstruction office, he envisioned the civil reserve as a cadre of several thousand police officers, police trainers, economists and civil administrators ready to deploy in short order to world hot spots. The corps would train together for several weeks a year, just like the military reserve does, so they would have common procedures.

A reserve would fill the holes in the current system, which relies on military troops not trained for civilian tasks or on contractors who often cannot be deployed in less than 90 days even in the most urgent of circumstances.

The idea has been kicked around in government circles for a few years and been the subject of several feasibility studies.

A civilian reserve was even a feature of former Gen. Wesley Clark’s 2004 failed campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He proposed a far broader reserve that could be mobilized for local, national or international needs.

Mr. Bush’s proposal last week found a mixed audience among bloggers, with some saying the idea is overdue, but others saying the details will matter. One blogger said he “was reminded of Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol,” a comedy about bumbling police officers assigned to train a civilian force to fight crime.

Mr. Pascual said the initial setup costs would be in the neighborhood of $150 million over a few years, and have a recurring cost of $50 million to $70 million. During a deployment, costs would go up, he said.

The White House did request $25 million in the 2007 budget to get the program started, but Congress did not appropriate the funds. The concept has congressional supporters, including top Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. The Senate last year passed by unanimous consent a bill that would have authorized the program, but it did not receive a vote in the House.

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