Monday, January 08, 2007


One of the findings of the Iraq Study Group was that only 6 people in the U.S. Embassy in Iraq were considered fluent in Arabic. I've read in the Chronicle of Higher Education that this has created an outcry for more government spending on language instruction of critical need.

Let me tell you what I know. I manage a grant from the Department of Education that stems from a similar need back in the 50s for the study of Russian and Russia. Unfortunately, I'm not versed enough in the history of how those students did to speak on it or whether there was a shift to Vietnamese (War), Spanish (Drug War), or French (Culture War) in response to our foreign entanglements.

What I do know is that our particular grant, the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship, provides tuition and living expenses for either a year or a summer to graduate students interested in the study of Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, or Persian through a degree-granting program. That sounds awfully specific, and it is, but it acknowledges that one can't gain enough knowledge of a language/culture without some serious devotion and study, or delusion and avoidance of a real job, so grad school is a good place to direct this money. Either way, doesn't this seem like a good way to solve the problem of only having 6 people in our biggest embassy on earth able to perceive the inhabitants?

My university has given roughly 10 full-year FLAS fellowships to the four languages listed above since 2000. Consider that it takes 2 years of full-time Arabic study to attain "proficiency," which is not quite fluent, and then at least another year of dialect training (hopefully in the country in question) to be near fluent, referred to in the trade as "really good Arabic for a blond kid from Kansas". So, we should have a little less than 20 fluent-enough-for-the-Iraq-Study-Group people out there just from my university alone. There are 5 - 6 other universities who also have FLAS grants in these languages and they put out similar numbers.

The system works; it creates expertise and fluency.

Our funding was cut significantly this cycle. Instead of offering more FLAS scholarships, we now offer one less. This is in the face of statements from the White House about how important it is to foster these languages given at our grantee meeting this year, in which a poor Department of Education flack was utterly torn apart by a conference room filled with hundreds of angry academics who see what is going on here. Money will be spent, but not on FLAS. The Department of Ed. has been asked by the White House to come up with something new, likely something that will make a detour around universities.

The system does not work, because anyone smart enough to become very good at Arabic is smart enough to stay the hell out of Baghdad.

There are lovely academics named Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer who constantly argue that higher education does not deserve government money if they refuse to lend their expertise and approval to government initiatives, i.e. how does a student accept a free ride at Harvard or Georgetown or UCLA on the government's dime and then refuse to get the first post to the Green Zone? Keep in mind that the FLAS will often just cover the first year, leaving one to take out loans for your second year and therefor being in the sort of debt that foreign adventurism has always recouped in the past.

Universities must be hotbeds of liberal insurrection if students feel they can take advantage of FLAS this way or professors feel free to speak out about Iraq, as there can be no other explanation other than that reasoned study of the issues, a glance over the history of the cultures in question, and the information exchange possible through language acquisition somehow creates a person that looks at Iraq and this administration as nothing they can be a part of without dying or going mad. This is not to say that no FLAS students go to Iraq; one of ours was profiled in the Wall Street Journal as the Defense Department's "Dave of Arabia" for his rapport with Iraqi tribal leaders, but Dave has seen himself reassigned away from where he could do the most good so many times that he doesn't want us to boast about him on our website.

Dave was already in the Army when he started grad school here, so his patriotism is never in question. What about the rest of us? The government created these scholarships in the hope of creating intellectual hammers for use against our enemies, so why won't these hammers hit the nail? There are students here who takes classes specifically on sectarianism, nation building, humanitarian emergencies, etc., students who aren't just the traditional East Coast Wannabe Foreign Service Officers but a former soldier from a bible college and a woman from Appalachian Ohio that I know won't go to Iraq after they graduate. This is partly because they don't want to die and perhaps partly politics, but also because no matter how much you study it and try to understand it there is something about our situation there that makes your soul die and your reason wither away.

You can argue that patriotism is the sort of thing that is meant to overwhelm that feeling, that if our grandfathers had felt the way we do now the Nazis would have won. I'd argue back that even isolationists could be persuaded that militant empires on either of our nation would be a threat one day. No matter how hard the propaganda pounds, you can't convince someone studying the region that Iraq was ever a threat. If asked what to do now, academics will offer the dodge of "we shouldn't be there in the first place," but this is only because they honestly don't have an answer and this doesn't offer much grist for interviews on CNN.

This is the ultimate problem of no fluency and it is one the Bush administration has proven powerless to solve. There are experts on Iraq and people fluent in Arabic, but they can't fix a nihilistic vacuum of death and betrayal any more than anyone else can and no one (especially patriots) should be expected to jump into it in hopes of plugging the hole with their corpses. Of course, there is a minority movement of fluent academics which helped create the vacuum, cherry-picked to give the war credibility. For his unwavering support, President Bush appointed Daniel Pipes to the U.S. Institute of Peace for two years at the onset of the Iraq War. I'll pull a classic blog move and not check up on this, but I imagine he's now in the "nuke it from orbit" camp. He certainly isn't one of the six at the Embassy.


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