Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Collounsbury called my attention to this article by The Washington Post on how the State Department has institutionalized incentives that mitigate against Foreign Service Officers developing real in-country Arabist expertise ( if any FSO's become experts that is in spite of, not because of, official procedures). An excerpt, first the short version of the problem at State:

" This is barrier number three: Foreign Service officers see few incentives to advance to high levels of Arabic language competence. There is no financial or career reward for qualifying at the higher levels. Moreover, to the extent that the time involved in language study detracts from diplomatic job responsibilities, the commitment to achieve near-fluency could even be a career-stopper."

Now the lengthy excerpt that reveals the bureaucratic mind at its finest:

"To understand why requires a safari into the bureaucratic undergrowth, so grab your machete. The Foreign Service classifies language ability into five levels, with "1" being the lowest (able to handle only the very simplest social situations) and "5" the highest (a level rarely assigned to anyone but a native speaker).

From a public diplomacy standpoint, the key distinction is between a "3" and a "4." We have a fairly good supply of 3's in Arabic, almost 200 as of August 2004 (the latest State Department data available). A level 3 can handle one-on-one situations, or something like a ministry meeting in a subject area they know well. But a level 3 speaker would flounder in a complex situation. If you put a 3 in a public meeting where many excited people are speaking on top of one another, for example, or in a coffee shop conversation with college students arguing about religion and the state, he or she would be lost. Double the difficulty if the diplomat has been trained only in Modern Standard Arabic, a formal dialect very different from the colloquial dialects that people actually speak (see sidebar). But these are precisely the kinds of situations that our Middle East diplomats must be equipped to handle.

Speaking, moreover, is generally harder than listening. No responsible person would ask a 3 to speak before an unfriendly crowd at the local university (or at the embassy gates), much less put a 3 in front of a television camera and expect a clear, engaging and cogent discussion of U.S. Middle East policy in Arabic. For that you need a 4, and preferably a 4+ or a 5. So how many of these 4 and 5 level speakers do we have in Arabic? As of August 2004 -- 27. At the highest levels (4+ and 5), we have a grand total of eight individuals worldwide.

This little band cannot possibly cover our need to understand and be understood across 21 embassies and consulates in a region with a population approaching 300 million people, and one, moreover, with very different dialects from east to west. Given that some of our Arabic speakers are inevitably on rotation in Washington or even assigned outside the region, our 27 most fluent Arabic-speaking diplomats equate to barely one per post.

...So how about option No. 2, turning more 3's into 4's? The State Department has a world-famous language training program, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), staffed by highly trained professionals. Anyone who has reached a 3 in Arabic can get to a 4 with determined study. Even a 2 has a good base to build on.

Unfortunately, current policies for language training make it all but impossible to turn 3's into 4's. Upgrading our roster of Arabic speakers would require getting around three obstacles.

First, traditional language training, based on sending officers to full-time language study for extended periods, is expensive. Since Arabic is a difficult language, the FSI figures it takes two years of full-time training to get a committed learner from a simple greeting of " Salaam aleikum" to level 3.

The State Department has made a significant commitment to expanding language training, nonetheless. Enrollments in Arabic and other challenging regional languages such as Farsi and Uzbek increased more than 80 percent from 2003 to 2004, from 228 officers to 415. Training averaged only a couple of months per person, though -- pretty basic stuff delivered in a hurry for most of the participants, in other words.

But there's a second stopper. FSI is not really sure how much training it would take to get from a 3 to a 4 in any case, because FSI stops training at 3.

Training goes only to officers assigned to "language-designated" positions -- slots that have been officially determined to require language skills. Thus, a diplomat assigned to Washington cannot get advanced Arabic training until he or she is actually assigned to a language-designated job overseas. And then there's no time to build real competency. This set-up creates a strong disincentive to designate positions as requiring language skills. No embassy wants to restrict its search to the comparatively few officers already qualified in Arabic or, even worse, effectively give up the position for the two years required to train an officer to a level 3 -- and carry them on its budget the whole time they sit in language classes.

So no posts are designated above level 3, which means, naturally, that the Foreign Service does not offer training beyond the 3, either. If 3's want additional language training to improve their skills to a 4, they have to do it on their own time and their own nickel. (The Foreign Service Institute has a pilot "Beyond 3" program, but it had a mere two people in it as of the latest report.)"

Eight highly qualified Arabists. Jesus Christ ! If that is the state of FSO Arabic fluency with 22 countries using Arabic as their lingua franca how many Urdu, Pashto and Farsi speakers do we have ? Two ? No wonder we can't penetrate the Iraqi insurgency or sell our foreign policy - our diplomatic corps barely has the linguistic wherewithal to stop at a gas station in Petra and ask for directions.

In case you believe that the article may be overstating things, here's another view from a retired USG Arabist and analyst who participates on the Small Wars Council discussion board:

"Most outsiders have a very distorted view of how State selects, trains, and assigns personnel to the embassies. As a youngster FAO relatively fresh from DLI Arabic, I went to Sudan as a FAO traiinee. I had zero Sudanese Arabic training and had done a year in Turkey and 6 months in French training before arriving in Khartoum. That said, I found aside from certain individuals like the Ambassador, my Arabic was better than most. The Defense Attache who had gone to State langauage school and claimed a higher pro score than me was basically a "helllo, good morning, goodbye" level speaker. So this does not surprise me.

Even when the language skills are there, embassies are not necessarily keyed into what is really happening around them. Ambassadors set the tone. Too many embassies are viewed as plums because they offer the most pay (COLA, hardship, danger) and you get youngsters sent there to get their feet wet or the "old hands" who stay and stay so their retirement pay gets maxed. The youngsters don't know how to operate and they mimic what happens among the "old hands. Other embassies get out and see what is happening beyond the "salle d'honneur" at the Foreign Ministry; they actually have a pulse on
events. "


Why then do things not change for the better? Yes, particularly after 9/11 but international incidents originating in the ME did not begin in 2001; we have decades of neglet here. Why ?

The explanation in my view is twofold: political and bureaucratic.

Politicians in the Executive Branch have zero incentive to invest political capital in reforming the State Department. The public isn't interested in the minutia of Foggy Bottom and barely attends to the broadest outline of foreign policy, absent a presidential election or a military attack. If a President can get the key appointees confirmed, create a few new " sexy" positions to deal with the crisis du jour and keep State from leaking to the press every five minutes that's about as far as management priorities go for the average administration.

Politicians in the Legislative Branch also lack any positive incentives to reform State for the same reasons. Congressmen can also gain mileage with the local papers back home by beating up on State's "wasteful" foreign aid and dragging ambassadors and deputy assistant secretaries into hearings that revolve around appeasing single-issue zealots. Thirdly, Congressional staffers and State's mandarins have a cozy relationship that both use to their advantage to undermine presidential policies in foreign relations ( not just George W. Bush, any president of either party).

The bureaucratic explanation is even simpler. State's highest level career officials, by and large, like the system as it is. They are its products and given human nature, the leaders of long-established institutions are seldom revolutionaries. Or even reformers. Experienced players know how to game the system to transfer from post to post in a career-enhancing way. Tying advancement to regional depth would keep some hyperactive hotshots out of the action or preclude some from getting " easy", low-risk, postings. Career trajectories would be at the mercy of world events and shifting national interest.

This is why the unipolar hyperpower of the globalized, information age, 21st century crafts and executes a foreign policy with a department that had its last complete overhaul in the age of the Model T.
This is why the war in Iraq is going so well!
You also have to consider the effect of more, more, and more Defense Department appropriations, while appropriations for State dry up. Defense has divided up the world into five proconsulships, and generals run them.

Much of this more properly belongs under State's purview, but the money puts it under Defense.

This leads to the hammer-and-nail problem, in which it becomes less necessary to learn the language of the people you're bombing.

Defense seems to have more Arabic speakers, although that has been becoming less true as they purge those of unacceptable sexuality.

I am glad you quoted the retired analyst. His experience matches what I have seen as an outsider.

I note my impression of US defense department Arabic speakers is that for the most part those that I have encountered are not at a good level and have a very... command oriented command of the language.

However, this is mere anectdote.
The State Department does not choose their hires on the basis of language ability. A cousin of mine who speaks no foreign language was hired while three friends with good language ability were not. One had a law degree, fluent Chinese and fluent German, another was working on a PhD in Middle Eastern History, had a mother who was an ambassador and had fluent Arabic (Egyptian and MSA) another had an MBA and a Law Degree and nearly fluent German. I have met some American state department employees with really good Arabic, but they were on the culture desk and have likely since retired. I have met DLI graduates with clumsy MSA and no colloquial at all. I can understand that there is a particular personality type that makes for a good diplomat. I also understand that humanities types with language training and talent may not seek out government service and may not be able to represent the policy of their country if they don't agree with it (I have seen this in USAID people). But hiring State Department officers who fit a personality profile while ignoring language ability is nutty. In the case of Western European languages, it is like hiring someone to be an entertainer, assuming they will be able to pick up classical guitar in their spare time without even checking to see whether they have musical talent in the first place. In the case of Arabic or Chinese, it is like hiring someone taking it for granted they can become an accomplished concert pianist.

I don't care if they are drag queens; if they are superb linguists we have critical SIGINT intercepts that basically go unread for lack of warm Arabic-fluent bodies.


From what I've read of the analyst's posts he's pretty impressive. Both an in-country and a scholarly grasp.

Well-said Anon !
as they purge those of unacceptable sexuality.

Heh. Before I joined the U.S. Army in 1989, I requested training in Arabic and was assured that my high scores on the required test would allow me to pursue that course.

Instead, they dumped me into Korean at DLI.

Then, before finishing the program, they kicked me out for being gay.

If I had been allowed to follow my chosen course, I would probably have stayed in the military, would have pursued my study of Arabic, and perhaps would be helping out in Iraq right now.

That was 1989-90, before Gulf I. But I had this feeling that Arabic would become very important (as anyone paying attention to the world would have realized).

So, now I blog.

On the other hand the 1990's was a terrible time to be in the military. A lot of irreplaceable warfighter types received the boot or retired early then. A good friend of mine who might very well have been at DLI with you ( different language)and subsequently taught at top tier universities left the service shaking his head. I won't say he was irreplaceable but his linguistic talent level didn't exactly grow on trees either.
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