What George Mitchell, the Middle East Peace Process, and Students in Ireland Share

There's something about the U.S. envoy to the Mideast that very few people know.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

President Obama's new envoy to the Middle East, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, is well known in Washington for his work on the Good Friday Accord in Northern Ireland and for chairing the investigation into steroid use in Major League Baseball. There's some interesting commentary today about Mitchell's chances for success: Columnist Alex Massie writes in the New Republic about the similarities between the Irish and Middle East peace processes and holds some hope for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians; Gerry Adams, the British MP from West Belfast and leader of Sinn Fein, tells a few stories about working with Mitchell back in the day, but ends up less than optimistic about Mitchell's chances with Hamas in his column for the London Guardian.

But there's something else about George Mitchell that very few people know about.

It's the biggest secret in town, and it will end up being his best legacy to future generations: the Mitchell Scholars program, which has become the Irish equivalent of a Rhodes Scholarship. A dozen or so candidates (chosen out of thousands of applicants) win a year of post-grad study at the Irish university of their choice. Like the Rhodes Scholars, they're chosen on the basis of academics and athletics. But unlike the Rhodes, they must also prove their leadership in community service. This is the crucial difference. These are the kind of kids who want to save the world—they've worked in places like Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo, post-tsunami Sri Lanka, Lebanon, you name it. Most speak several languages and many have already cycled through the Peace Corps. And so quite a few have turned down the Rhodes to accept the Mitchell instead, often to go to the Queen's University Belfast's graduate program on conflict resolution. These highly motivated young people believe that if you want to learn how to stop sectarian violence without bloodshed and create solid economic growth (the latest downturn notwithstanding), Ireland is the place to start. They're right.

I was lucky to meet a few of these young people a few years ago when I was a judge for the Mitchell Scholars competition, along with future Obama adviser Samantha Powers, former National Security Adviser Tony Lake, and a handful of others. Since then, many of the scholars have sent me notes about their studies, their hopes for the future, and what they've gone on to do. You could call it a modern version of the Irish diaspora—young people heading out from Ireland to places all over the world, but in this case to solve the biggest questions of our time.

In fact, I'd put my money on them to bring peace to the world a lot faster than anyone in Washington can.

  • Read more by Mary Kate Cary.
  • Read more from the Thomas Jefferson Street blog.

  • Corrected on 01/30: An earlier version of this blog misidentified Queen's University Belfast.