Tongue-Tied in the Arab World (Washington Post)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jul 11 13:35:40 UTC 2003

This article is not surprising, and the disdain for knowledge of Arabic
(or any other language spoken "east of Suez") is well-known.  To those of
us who have specialized in the less-known and less-studied languages of
the world, the article could be written with any less-commonly known
language substituted for "Arabic".  People like myself, who took the leap
and specialized in Tamil back in the 1960's, thought that the eurocentric
bent of American education, where people only studied European languages,
whether in high school or beyond, was over, and that the change of
emphasis in the 1960's meant that eurocentrism was dead.  But then in the
1970's the disdain for knowledge of the rest of the world returned.  This
was particularly true during the Vietnam War, because Nixon and others
felt that we specialists were "tilting" towards the "enemy" and "going
native" and "sympathizing too much" with "those people."  Just the same
attitudes as quoted from Francis Fukuyama below.  (Is this the same person
who predicted the "death of history"?)

Suddenly, on September 12, 2001, somebody in Washington DC woke up and
realized that we really don't know enough about "those languages" and
maybe we ought to have someone who does.


Your moderator,

Hal Schiffman

On Fri, 11 Jul 2003 ronkinm at wrote:

> 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
> interests.
> 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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