Tongue-Tied in the Arab World (Washington Post)

ronkinm at ronkinm at
Fri Jul 11 12:32:03 UTC 2003

Tongue-Tied In the Arab World

By David Ignatius

Friday, July 11, 2003; Page A21

PARIS -- The Post ran a story this week about an explosion on a bridge
in Baghdad that targeted U.S. troops. Sadly, such stories are
becoming routine, but something in the lead sentence caught my eye: "The
combat engineers inside the tan Humvees had traversed the
Wedding Island Bridge dozens of times to fetch their translator."

"To fetch their translator." That's the worrying detail. None of the
engineers spoke Arabic, apparently. Which meant that, like most of the
150,000 U.S. personnel in Iraq, they were dependent on interpreters.
That's a dangerous vulnerability. But, as with so much else about
postwar Iraq, nobody seems to have thought it through carefully.

This is a self-inflicted wound. For until recently, fluency in Arabic
was often suspect in Washington, a sign of potential pro-Arab
sympathies. It could be dangerous to your career health.

The ideological purges of the 1950s wiped out a generation of
Sinologists who were deemed too close to Beijing, leaving America
without needed expertise when it went to war in Vietnam. So now the lack
of Arab-world expertise limits America in Iraq.

The shortage of Arabic speakers has become so acute that one of the U.S.
government's most fluent Arabists recently had to interpret trivial
housekeeping questions at his headquarters in Baghdad. This is a man who
could help create a new Iraq; what a waste that he must spend time
minding the domestic staff.

The lack of Arabists already was severe during the Afghanistan war.
Indeed, I am told that an Arabic document found in Kabul before the
murder of Daniel Pearl outlined a plot to kidnap an American journalist
in an unnamed country. But it was ignored in a heap of documents by
an overwhelmed Pentagon bureaucracy.

Once upon a time it was different. There was a caste at the State
Department and the CIA known as "the Arabists." Often their parents had
been missionaries or teachers in the Arab world, so they grew up
learning subtleties of language and culture. Sometimes, they became
Arabists by choice rather than birth -- drawn to that part of the world
by its exotic if dangerous political history.

I think of people such as Robert Ames, a young basketball star who fell
in love with the Arab world in the 1960s after CIA language school.
As I wrote in a 1987 novel based loosely on Ames's experiences, "he felt
the Middle East like a physical sensation on his skin." The real-life
Ames developed secret contact with the PLO's chief of intelligence
during the 1970s that saved hundreds of American lives.

Or I think of Ray Close, who was CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia for
seven turbulent years and helped limit the damage of the 1973
Arab-Israeli war and subsequent oil embargo. He is descended from four
generations of missionaries, teachers and diplomats who came to
the Middle East starting in 1853, and he has spent 37 years of his life
in the region.

Or of Daniel Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew whose fluent Arabic made him a
valuable ambassador to Cairo in the late '90s, when he wasn't
fighting Egyptian prejudice. The point is, these people knew enough
about their part of the world to help protect American security

But during the past two decades, the Arabists began to fall into
disrepute. They were accused of being too sympathetic to the culture
they had mastered, and they were attacked for having an implicit bias
against Israel.

In his 1993 book "The Arabists," Robert D. Kaplan quoted a particularly
vitriolic assessment from former State Department official Francis
Fukuyama, who said the Arabists "have been more systematically wrong
than any other area specialists in the diplomatic corps. This is
because Arabists not only take on the cause of the Arabs, but also the
Arabs' tendency for self-delusion."

Not surprisingly, when fluency in a foreign language came to be equated
with "self-delusion," the Arabists' ranks began to thin, as ambitious
CIA and State officers looked for other billets. Both agencies tried
hard in the 1990s to expand their Arabic training programs, but the
stigma remains, as does the dearth of officers who can really thrive in
the local culture.

We are paying the price for demonizing specialists who knew the Arab
world -- whose expertise could be helping the United States in Iraq.
We are also paying for America's decades of neglect, in government and
outside, of foreign languages and area studies.

It's not a question of pro or anti, but of having the skills to get the
job done. I can't think of anything more dangerous to America's national
security, or Israel's for that matter, than to have American officers in
postwar Iraq who can't find the bathroom without asking an interpreter
for directions.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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