First, speak the language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Dec 13 13:40:18 UTC 2006

First, speak the language



In government, the tone set at the top can be as powerful as the mightiest
army. It reverberates through everything.  The history of the American
presidency is the story of the character and temperament of the man in the
Oval Office coursing through thousands of smaller decisions, often
thousands of miles away. If the president is supple and open-minded, those
decisions made many layers below him are more likely to be agile and
empirical. If he's stubborn and too sure that he has all the answers, the
modeling of his behavior is likely to result in decisions you would ground
your teenager for. This process is uncanny and usually unconscious, the
product less of explicit orders or egregious bootlicking than of
bureaucratic osmosis. The temperament of the chief leaches into the
performance of functionaries he has never met.

FDR was a great believer in experimentation, so the legions below him
launched hundreds of experimental programs to fight the Depression. Ike
was a champion of logistics during World War II, so it figured that the
Interstate Highway System got built on his watch. LBJ was a master
legislator, so it was no coincidence that his presidency featured scads of
legislation; his insecurities, in turn, contributed to the Vietnam
debacle. In recent years, George H.W. Bush's habit of writing endless
thank-you notes bore indirect fruit in the gracious and face-saving way he
managed the demise of the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton's messy but thorough
policy analysis led to dozens of small, well-built initiatives that worked
with surprising consistency. The United States in the Second Bush Era has
not been as fortunate. Beyond the headlines and major policy
recommendations, the Iraq Study Group's mercifully readable report shows
how President Bush's personal shortcomings manifest themselves in
appalling miscues on the ground.

Consider this largely overlooked portion of the report: "Our embassy of
1,000 has 33 Arabic speakers, just six of whom are at the level of
fluency. In a conflict that demands effective and efficient communications
with Iraqis, we are often at a disadvantage." Disadvantage? Nah. Who could
imagine that having only .6 percent of our personnel who speak the native
language might cause us some problems over there? If the damn Iraqis would
just learn English, we wouldn't be in this mess!

Bush did not set out to miss the mark, of course, but his inattention to
the execution of his grand ideas has had fatal consequences. At $8 billion
per month in Iraq, you would think we'd have a few more people there who
could find their way to the bathroom. After 9/11, the absence of Arabic
speakers was a big story. Analysts all agreed that we could not stop
terrorism without addressing the problem. A different kind of president
would have ordered a Manhattan Project-style crash program to teach the
difficult-to-learn language in schools. Such a "National Security Language
Initiative" was finally launched - with little notice, money or
presidential attention - this year, five years late.

In the meantime, several reports highlighting the shortage have "gathered
dust," the president's words for what usually happens to Washington
studies. They show that as of 2006, only 33 FBI agents - 1 percent - have
even limited proficiency in Arabic. (The bureau claims its outside
contractors can do the job.) Among other terrifying revelations, a related
lawsuit has shown in eyepopping videotaped depositions that the men who
run FBI counterterrorism efforts don't know the difference between Sunnis
and Shiites.


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