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The Language Barrier


Most of the time, I believe that the U.S. and other Western countries, can, if they really work at it, bridge the cultural gap and reach some kind of understanding with the Arab and Islamic worlds. At other times, I think that the cultural differences are just too great.

Lately, I have been leaning toward the latter view.

That change in thinking comes on the heels of news that the U.S. military has kicked out 58 Arabic language experts because of their alleged homosexuality. Although the military wants to focus the debate about the firing of the 58 linguists on their sexual preferences, the broader issue is about America’s dire need for more personnel who can speak, read, and write Arabic.

The U.S. military in Iraq–and the entire U.S. government–is so short of people who can speak Arabic that any loss of personnel with Arabic language skills is a tremendous blow. And now, the military has dismissed nearly five dozen of the personnel who are most needed.

The acute shortage of Arabic-speaking personnel is not new. Late last year, the Iraq Study Group, which was headed by James A. Baker III, the former U.S. secretary of state and a true pragmatist when it came to the Middle East, released its 160-page report on the situation in Iraq. Baker’s group offered a number of suggestions about how the U.S. and the Bush administration might be able to salvage its reputation and its future involvement in the Middle East. But a close read of the document reveals a critical point about America’s fundamental ignorance of Middle East politics, history, and culture. On page 92, the document says that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which, by the way, is the largest U.S. embassy on the planet, has some 1,000 State Department personnel. (That number does not include all of the service workers and security providers.)

But of that 1,000 people, just 33 speak Arabic and only six are fluent in Arabic.

Think about that. Less than one-half of one percent of the people assigned to what is likely the single most important foreign posting in the American diplomatic corps are able to fully communicate with the Iraqis. And yet the American public grows ever more impatient in Iraq because the war is not going well.

It’s not just in Iraq. Last August, a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the entire State Department is drastically short of trained Arabic speakers. The report found that out of 160 positions in the agency that required proficiency in Arabic, only 64 of those positions–or about 40 percent ­were filled by personnel who met the language requirements. When it came to specialists in Arab culture, the problem was even more acute. The GAO found that 75 percent of the jobs were filled by people who couldn’t speak Arabic well enough to meet the requirements. “Many public diplomacy officers in the Muslim world cannot communicate with local audiences as well as their positions require. For example, an information officer in Cairo stated that his office does not have enough Arabic speaking staff to engage the Egyptian media effectively.” Given that neither the American military nor American diplomats have sufficient Arabic-speaking capabilities, is it any wonder that the U.S. is having trouble communicating with the Arab world?

There are many reasons for the lack of Arabic speakers. First and foremost among them: Arabic is an extremely difficult language for English speakers to learn. It requires a minimum of one year of full-time study to become capable in the language and far longer than that to be truly fluent. That kind of time commitment has little appeal in an impatient American culture that wants things to happen right away. But the gulf between the U.S. and the Arab world isn’t just about language. It’s also about a basic level of cultural awareness. And high-ranking American officials have little interest in educating themselves about the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Last year, Jeff Stein, a reporter from a Washington-based publication, Congressional Quarterly, wrote a story which revealed that some of the highest ranking members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Congress don’t even know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. In one instance, Stein asked Willie Hulon, the new head of the FBI’s new national security branch, which Islamic sect dominated Hezbollah and Iran. Hulon responded “Sunni.”


When Stein put similar questions to U.S. Representative Terry Everett, the outgoing Republican vice chairman of a subcommittee in the House of Representatives responsible for intelligence issues, Everett said that the split between Sunnis and Shia was “differences in their religion, different families, or something.” Another member of Congress had a similarly vague response, saying that the “Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa.”

While it’s easy to pick on members of Congress, the truth is that their lack of understanding about Islam reflects a broader American ignorance about Islam and the Arab world. And that ignorance is increasingly dangerous given George W. Bush’s escalation of the Second Iraq War. Bush’s “surge” of troops in Iraq depends wholly on firepower and military might, not on diplomacy and cultural understanding. And yet it is diplomacy and cultural awareness that are most needed now if the U.S. and the West are to come to grips with the growing power and influence of the Arab and Islamic countries.

It’s also a matter of expectations. When Americans go to the Arab world, they expect to meet people who speak English. But few Arabs ever assume that the Americans, or Westerners, that they meet will be able to speak even the most rudimentary Arabic.

The unfortunate fact is that when it comes to dealing with foreign cultures, the U.S. government values technology more than personal know-how and language skills. That can be seen by looking at where the U.S. military spends its money. This year, the U.S. military will spend about $200 million on the Defense Language Institute, the school that teaches foreign languages to about 3,500 soldiers and other government officials each year. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is now purchasing more than 181 copies of the F-22 fighter plane–each one of which costs $361 million. In other words, the U.S. is spending nearly twice as much to buy a single airplane as it spends per year imparting language skills to its personnel. And it is doing so even as U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq continue to be desperately short of Arabic-speaking personnel who can help them deal with the ongoing insurgency.

For G.I. Wilson, a former Marine Corps colonel, who served 28 years on active duty–15 months of which was spent in Iraq–the amount of money being spent on high-tech toys like the F-22, is “enough to make a grown infantry officer break down and cry.” Wilson, an expert on insurgencies who served in al-Anbar province, Fallujah, and Ramadi, said his units in Iraq “never had enough” interpreters.

The point here is obvious: the U.S. desperately needs to ramp up its engagement of the Arab and Islamic worlds. It needs to move beyond the militarism that brought us the quagmire in Iraq and seek political and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts in the Middle East. But American diplomats, politicians, and soldiers cannot effectively engage the Arabic-speaking world if they don’t understand the differences between the Sunni and the Shia. Nor can they be effective without basic language skills.

Alas, those language skills are being ignored, or in the case of the U.S. military, carelessly frittered away. Meanwhile, the resulting gulf between the U.S. and its friends (and foes) in the Middle East continues to grow wider.

ROBERT BRYCE lives in Austin, Texas and managing editor of Energy Tribune. He is the author of Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate. He can be reached at:



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