Why do big shifts in the global security environment always seem to come as colossal surprises to America’s leaders? From the bombing of Pearl Harbor to North Korea’s invasion of the south to the Tet Offensive to the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. policymakers never seem to get ahead of the news. In the case of 9-11, they spent a decade predicting “asymmetric” attacks, and then still were stunned when one actually occurred.
Academics looking for an explanation point to America’s geographical insularity and unique political culture. But maybe the real problem is that almost no one in the United States seems to speak a foreign language unless they recently arrived from some other place. Consider this: in 2000, the year before 9-11, American colleges and universities graduated a grand total of nine students who were majoring in Arabic. That’s nine people in a nation of nearly 300 million. There were even fewer graduates majoring in Farsi, the main language of Iran (140 Chinese majors graduated that year).
The consequences of this linguistic deficiency for national security are probably greater than we grasp. The CIA and FBI can’t hire enough translators, so potentially vital intelligence goes unread. In Iraq, Army brigades sometimes have only one fluent Arabic speaker in their ranks, forcing the units to rely on locals to interpret what that fellow across the street is shouting. Nobody knows how many military mistakes have resulted, but the Bush Administration believes it is a big problem.
In 2004, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz signed Strategic Planning Guidance directing development of a “roadmap” for improving language skills. The guidance set four goals: create “foundational language and cultural expertise” across the joint force; build the “capacity to surge language and cultural resources” by drawing on linguists from outside the defense department; establish “a cadre of language specialists” with superior fluency; and organize a system for tracking the careers and promotion rates of language professionals.
The roadmap for implementing these goals was released in January 2005 and made dozens of recommendations such as requiring regional commanders to identify linguistic needs more precisely, publishing an annual “strategic language list,” developing a language readiness index, and making fluency in foreign language a condition for promotion to general. Most of the recommendations are being implemented. More recently, the Department of Defense has joined with the Department of State, Department of Education, and Director of National Intelligence to launch a National Security Language Initiative that would expand foreign language education in the United States.
These are worthwhile steps, but there a many obstacles to success. The languages most in demand — Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Korean — are often the hardest for westerners to learn. Demand for fluency in specific languages surges and and declines with geopolitical developments, making it hard to predict future needs. For example, military demand for speakers of Somali plummeted after the United States pulled out of that country, while demand for Arabic interpreters increased by 1,000 just between 2004 and 2005. It seems the government will have to continue relying on contractors to obtain scarce linguistic talent for the foreseeable future. But with GAO reporting that 40% of U.S. diplomats in Cairo don’t speak Arabic adequately, it’s clear the current, state of U.S. language skills isn’t acceptable.
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