Critical foreign language skills continue to decline within the U.S. Department of State. This crisis, which the Department has known about for over ten years, is a threat to U.S. national security. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that American diplomats in Egypt are unable to communicate with local officials, except through translators. American diplomats in Turkey only read English-language Turkish newspapers due to a shortage of diplomats fluent in Turkish. Less than 1% of American diplomats in Afghanistan speak Dari, the unofficial lingua franca for the country. Most of the other forty (40) languages and dialects of Afghanistan are ignored. One consequence reported by the GAO is that U.S. Embassies are unable to promptly analyze and respond to negative local press reports, thus harming American interests.
The State Department exists for one primary reason, which is to communicate with foreigners, yet the Department is increasingly unable to effectively do so. It is not simply an inability to communicate, but a deeper difficulty in comprehending foreign cultures. For example, the United States has elected to refer to its enemy in Afghanistan by using the “respectful” Dari term TALIBAN (i.e., students). Afghan opponents of the ousted regime tend to use the less respectful Dari term TALIBHA. American diplomats appear oblivious to their mistake.
This article summarizes the current crisis and explores some of the blunders, mistakes and consequences resulting from the State Department’s foreign language gaps and superficial knowledge.
1. U.S. Diplomatic Language Skills Dangerously Decline
In its January 31, 2002, report, following the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the GAO evaluated the foreign language competency of seven U.S. Government agencies, including the State Department. It found that language skills were at a dismally low level which “weakened the fight against international terrorism” and “resulted in less effective representation of U.S. interests overseas.” The State Department promised to take corrective action.
In August 2006, the GAO published its second major report entitled: “Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist.” It found no improvement in State Department language skills. The State Department promised to take corrective action. On September 17, 2009, the GAO published two new reports which concluded that foreign language skills within the State Department for crucial important or “hard” languages were actually declining. Again the State Department promised to take corrective action.
Jeff Stein of the Washington Post followed up a year later and found that the State Department continued to ignore this crisis. See his June 10, 2010, report: “Soldiers and diplomats still lack language skills.” Emily Long of “Government Executive.Com” conducted her own follow-up for her October 18, 2010, article entitled: “Lack of linguists hampers government’s mission, officials say.” The problems remain.
The State Department’s standard response is to claim that it has recently increased the number of its language-designated positions and therefore the problem is limited to not being able to keep up with the increase. Upon analysis this is misleading. The overall number of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), along with temporary diplomats (called “3161" employees) has increased dramatically over the past ten years.
As a result there has been an increase in language-designated positions, but the actual number of additional positions has been almost microscopic. If the State Department increases its Arabic specialists at its Embassy in Tunisia from one to two, the Department boasts of a 100% increase in language specialists, but all it has done is add one person, when fifty are needed. The State Department does not excel in crucial languages, but it does excel in deceptive statistics.
All of the above studies detail the same set of chronic problems:
1. A large portion of State Department posts in dangerous countries are vacant, while there is no lack of diplomats at popular U.S. Embassies in Rome, Dublin, London, Stockholm or Buenos Aires.
2. The State Department plays with its statistics by only designating a tiny portion of its Embassy slots as “language designated” positions. For example the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, with over 1000 State Department employees, in 2009, had only 14 slots requiring (designating) Arabic language skills.
3. Even after it had designated only a minuscule number of its Embassy positions as requiring foreign language skills, the State Department has still been unable to fill those slots with qualified personnel. For the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan the language deficiency percentage for the designated positions was 73%. It was 60% at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and 59% for the Embassy in Egypt. In 2009, the GAO found that out of the 3,600 language designated positions, on average 31% of diplomats assigned to those positions had substandard language skills. This was up from 29% in 2005, so the situation is getting worse.
4. The languages designated for these positions is usually the primary language spoken within the host country, almost always excluding crucial local dialects and regional or minority languages, which are looked down upon. For example, Pakistan has more than sixty (60) languages and dialects. There is no effort being made to learn 95% of these languages. This reporter (a State Department official in 2008) was studying Iraqi Arabic on his own at the Middle East Institute. A senior diplomat with the Foreign Service Institute attempted to dissuade him from doing so, stating: “We (i.e., American diplomats) do not speak dialect.”
5. The GAO found that State Department’s language statistics were “misleading: and “overstate the actual language proficiency of Foreign Service Officers in Language Designated positions.” What that means is that a diplomat may pass a State Department test certifying them as being “fluent” in a language such as Arabic, but in actuality they lack enough practical knowledge of the language to function effectively in the host country.
Many factors have contributed to this gap in language competence. They include:
Political appointees who would rather spend State Department funds on policy initiatives that generate press releases, than language training;
An ignorant belief that there is no value in speaking directly to a foreign in his or her own language, when one can speak to them through an interpreter.
The result is a lack of funding and commitment to learning the more challenging and crucial languages and dialects. Language training programs at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute are much shorter than programs run by the Defense Language Institute; in some cases 50% shorter. In addition, many times diplomats are pulled back into the field before even these short programs are completed. Emily Long interviewed Susan B. Johnson, then-President of the American Foreign Service Association. She said it was more important to have bodies in the field at a local embassy than it is to have diplomats with the necessary language skills.
This reporter is a former U.S. Air Force Captain who served overseas and lived in five different countries. Ms. Johnson is 180 degrees wrong. In fact it is preferable to keep language-ignorant diplomats at home rather than send them overseas unprepared for their assignment. They can do more harm than good.
2. State Department Carelessly Invents Arabic Words
The consequences of the State Department’s ignorance of languages such as Arabic extends from simple errors, such as: “what is the name of the leader of Libya?” to more complex failures.
Regarding the name of the Libyan leader, it would seem to be a simple matter to ask him for the English spelling of his name. We presently have two “official” Libyan versions:
“Muammar Qaddafi” - which is the spelling he used in his January 21, 2009, Op/Ed article for The New York Times entitled: “The One-State Solution”;
“Muammar ElKaddafi” - which is the spelling used by the Libyan People’s Bureau (its Embassy) in Washington, D.C.
The State Department ignores these and uses two different spellings:
Moammar Qaddafi - it was used by Ambassador Susan Rice on February 28, 2011, at her White House briefing;
Muammar al-Qadhafi - which appears through-out the State Department’s Internet web site. Qaddafi dropped the “al” from his name because he considers himself more an African than an Arab.
Other State Department mistranslations are evident from a search of its website for the terms “fatwas,” “hadiths,” “jihadist”and “Koran.” These are just a few of the partially invented Americo-Arabic words which are constantly repeated in speeches by ignorant U.S. diplomats.
“Fatwa” and “hadith” are important Islamic terms that have been phonetically translated from Arabic into English. The former is a religious edict issued by a recognized Islamic scholar while the latter is a collection and analysis of the Sunna (the life of the Prophet). However, in Arabic, the plurals of those terms are not formed by adding an “s” at the end. The Arabic plural of fatwa is “fataa’wa.”
The plural of hadith is “ahaa’deeth.” Instead of educating its audiences by using the correct Arabic plurals, the State Department and others corrupt the Arabic term by adding an English “s.” This creation (in Arabic) appears as gibberish. Half-Arabic and half-English hybrids epitomize the Department’s half-hearted attitude towards mastering foreign languages, especially the more difficult languages and dialects of the Middle East and South Asia.
The same occurs in its use of the term “jihadist.” U.S. diplomats have taken the Islamic term “jihad,” which stems from the Arabic root words jahd and judh (solemn and struggle) and for convenience sake added a nonsensical (in Arabic) “ist” ending, creating a new mutation. They have done the same with the term “madrasa,” which simply means “school” in Arabic (for example “madrasa ammah” means “public school”). U.S. diplomats refer to the plural as madrasas, which is linguistically incorrect.
Regarding the holy book revealed by Allah to the prophet Mohammed, the State Department describes it as “the Koran” and when U.S. diplomats speak they stress the second syllable (Core-Ann’). State Department “experts” repeatedly ignore the Arabic letter called al-hamza. The correct term for the holy book, as phonetically translated from Modern Standard Arabic is “al-Qur’an.” (pronounced: al-Qoor’-on) In Iraqi and Gulf Arabic dialects it might be more appropriately pronounced as “il-Qoor’on.”
Finally the State Department repeatedly refers to “al-Qaeda,” yet it is not at all clear if this is its correct name. During interviews with Ayman al-Zawahiri (whose last name is more accurately spelled phonetically as “Thou-ahiri”), he and others within his organization refer to it as “Qaedat al-Jihad” or the Base of Jihad (“al-Qaeda” for short). A search of the entire State Department website reveals no mention of the actual full name of America’s enemy. Ignorance does not win wars.
3. State Department Pays Muslims to Endorse U.S. Policies
With control of U.S. foreign policy in the hands of political appointees seemingly oblivious to the complexities of the foreign cultures, they tend to seek simple solutions to America’s difficult problems. One such solution is called the “Ambassadors’ Fund for Counterterrorism.” It was apparently the brainchild of Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism. Benjamin was hired by Secretary Clinton from the ranks of the politically connected Brookings Institution. He sees the Ambassadors’ Fund as a key element in his CVE (countering violent extremism) program and has set aside up to $100,000 each for CVE schemes by local Ambassadors.
One such scheme has apparently been to pay prominent Muslims to publicly condemn violence and/or to publicly support American policies. This poorly thought out policy has a real risk of backfiring. If local U.S. Embassies are funding Muslims who speak out against extremist Islamic views, all Muslims who publicly oppose Usama bin Laden and his practices or who preach moderation risk being labeled as American puppets.
The same backfiring is occurring due to a different program in Pakistan. Two weeks ago a senior Pakistani intelligence office told the Los Angeles Times’ Alex Rodriguez and Ken Dilanian that with the State Department now permitting CIA contractors such as Raymond Davis to work undercover at U.S. consulates and other places, all the NGOs within the country must come under scrutiny as possible CIA spies. This is what happens when U.S. diplomats clumsily bumble into foreign affairs with poorly thought out new schemes. They may have good intentions, but their ignorance can have dire consequences for innocent parties working abroad.
4. U.S. Government Supports Sharia Law (sometimes)
On October 6, 2010, Dan Rooney, U.S. Ambassador to Ireland hosted a seminar on how financial instruments can be drafted so that they comply with Islamic Sharia law. This is one component of the State Department inconsistent policy towards Islam. Officially the United States opposes efforts by Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda to impose Sharia law on Islamic countries, but then it respects or supports such efforts in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and in Ireland. Last year President Obama and Vice-President Biden both urged Kenyans to support the new Constitution for that country despite that the fact that it formalized in Chapter IV, Part 2, the establishment of “Kadhis” (or Islamic) Courts which enforce Sharia law. The U.S. Government apparently considers some level of Sharia law to be acceptable, but what that level is remains unclear because the State Department has failed to articulate its drifting policy.
5. U.S. Combats Islamic Terrorism by Throwing Parties
WikiLeaks revealed an April 18, 2008, confidential cable from U.S. Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle in London to the State Department’s Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism in which he sought $50,000 for a plan to counter violent extremist ideology in Britain. The money would fund “reverse radicalization efforts” and it would allow the Embassy to host a “Ramadan Festival” with pro-Western Muslims.
The grant would also provide $39,000 to have the “Allah Made Me Funny” troupe travel to the UK and make an appearance at the festival. This troupe of three American Muslim stand-up comedians had previously appeared at an Embassy function in November 2007. They make jokes about 9/11, Muslims on airplanes, Muslim dress and appearances and exaggerated American fears of all things Muslim. Ambassador Tuttle argued in the diplomatic cable that the appearance of the troupe would send a “powerful message” to British Muslims.
Bob Tuttle was appointed to his Ambassador post by former President George W. Bush after Tuttle raised over $200,000 for the 2004, Bush reelection. It apparently never occurred to Tuttle that a better message would have been for his Embassy to have actually observed the month-long Ramadan fasting and then participated at a more low-key level in its daily after-sunset dinners. He could have traveled to a different Muslim community each night for dinner. The solution is not always to throw money at a problem. Ambassador Tuttle might also have considered banning alcohol from the U.S. Embassy during Ramadan as a show of respect.
In February 2011, Ambassador Matthew Barzun followed Tuttle’s poor example and used U.S. taxpayer funds to book the troupe for an event at the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm. Barzun was appointed to his Ambassador post in Sweden as a reward after serving as a political fundraiser for Barack Obama in Massachusetts.
In conclusion, the State Department is supposed to combat America’s enemies with words and ideas. The weapons needed are Egyptian (Arabic), Iraqi (Arabic), Turkish, Af Soomali, Balochi, Sindhi, Hindko, Nuristani and hundreds of other languages and dialects. Success also requires an understanding and appreciation for the cultures of each of those countries and groups. In this struggle the State Department is seemingly content to finish in second place behind al-Qaeda.
For further reading, see the GAO reports listed above, which are all available for reading on-line. See also Raymond Ibrahim and his excellent book “The Al-Qaeda Reader.”