By William Fisher
America’s acute shortage of Arabic speakers is in danger of crippling the nation’s efforts to counter terrorist threats, communicate with prisoners, and build bridges to the Muslim world.
The numbers of Arabic language students in U.S. universities has skyrocketed since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. But it still ranks behind classical Greek, Latin and even American Sign Language.
The shortage has spurred an aggressive campaign of recruiting – including generous sign-on bonuses -- by all U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the State Department (DOS), the Defense Department (DOD), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The CIA has taken out ads in local newspapers that feature a photo of the Statue of Liberty with the words: "For over 100 years, Arab Americans have served the nation. Today we need you more than ever." The agency is offering bonuses of up to $25,000 for new hires who are fluent in Arabic and other crucial languages.
And last year’s intelligence reorganization law authorized the agency to study so-called ‘heritage communities’ such as metropolitan Detroit’s Arab populations with foreign language abilities. It also earmarked money for a pilot program to recruit foreign-language speakers into a civilian linguist reserve corps.
All U.S intelligence services report substantial increases in employment applications. But the ratio of applications to job offers remains low. One reason is the high standards set by these agencies. Another is the unwillingness of many Arab and Muslim-Americans to apply to agencies they see as having contributed to creating an ‘Islamophobic’ environment. Still another is the security clearance process, which can take up to a year or longer.
One result of the shortage is that analysts at the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) are awash in untranslated gleanings of intelligence in Arabic. Nor are there enough interpreters to handle detainees in Iraq.
The FBI says that since Sept. 11, the agency has processed 30,000 applicants for jobs as linguists in Arabic, Farsi, and other tongues. But it points out that "out of 20 applicants, we'd be lucky to get one or two." The FBI now has more than 1,200 linguists, an increase of 50 percent since September 11th.
The shortage is having no less an effect on U.S. efforts in public diplomacy.
A Pentagon advisory panel known as the Defense Science Board reported recently, "The United States today is without a working channel of communications to the world of Muslims and Islam."
And the bipartisan U. S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy appointed by President Bush concluded late last year that the American campaign to communicate its ideas and ideals, particularly to Muslim audiences, was “uncoordinated and underfunded, and risks sending contradictory messages about U.S. intentions.” It said that one successful initiative -- exchange programs between U.S. and foreign students -- has been burdened by ''redundant" security measures and ''excessive" visa fees.
Adam Clayton Powell III, Visiting Professor and Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, told IPS, “There are only a half dozen or so U.S. spokesmen who have a sufficient grasp of the Arabic language to appear on radio or television in that part of the world. That means the U.S. is not even part of the dialogue there.”
The language situation appears to be improving, but for a number of reasons it can only improve slowly. One of them is that, for Americans, Arabic is one of the most difficult languages in the world.
For example, Arabic has its own alphabet and is written from right to left. Written Arabic differs from the many dialects spoken on the streets of Arab countries, and people from different Arab countries often have a hard time understanding one another. To master Arabic takes significantly more time than Romance languages such as Spanish or French, which are more closely related to English.
The U.S. State Department rates Arabic, along with Chinese and Korean, as a "superhard" language, a designation formalized late last year.
Colleges in the United States report rising demand from Americans to study Arabic, and are attempting to beef up their curricula to accommodate the surge. More schools are adding programs and hunting for teachers, but that is a challenge because many of the U.S. professors who specialize in Arabic and fields related to the Arab world are at or nearing retirement age.
Nonetheless, "Today we have more teachers of Arabic than we had students 10 years ago," says Michael Lemmon, dean of the U.S. State Department's School of Language Studies.
But the 10,584 students who were studying Arabic in 2002 are still a tiny group compared with those studying Spanish, Italian, French and other languages.
Another problem with recruiting Arabic speakers is that many of the students who graduate with proficiency in the language choose not to teach it. And working for the U.S. government is by no means the sole motivation for many students of Arabic.
Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a fluent Arabic speaker, told IPS, “Not everyone studying Arabic is thrilled with U.S. policies in the Middle East. Many students are critical of certain U.S. policies toward the Middle East, especially regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he added. “If the Feds want more Americans to study Arabic, they should give money for undergraduate scholarships. “
Cole says government funding for the study of Arabic by graduate students “has fallen dramatically since 1980. The Reagan administration zero-budgeted the program every year in the 1980s, but Congress put the money back. But the program has not kept up with inflation. In 1984 the University of Michigan was giving out nearly 20 awards to grads every year. I don't think they can support more than three or four graduate students with the current Federal grant. It is pitiful.”
The acute shortage of Arabic speakers needs to be viewed not only as a critical piece of the counter-terrorism agenda, but also as an absolutely indispensable component of America’s public diplomacy effort. President Bush has nominated one of his closest advisors, Karen Hughes, to lead those efforts at the State Department. But, to paraphrase Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark, “You go to war with the army you’ve got, not necessarily the army you want.”
How Karen Hughes – or any of the U.S. intelligence and security agencies – can successfully fight their wars with ‘the army they’ve got’ remains a mystery. And remains to be seen.