How many Arabists?

One of the breathtaking nuggets in the Iraq Study Group report is the following:

“All of our efforts in Iraq, military and civilian, are handicapped by Americans’ lack of language and cultural understanding. Our embassy of 1,000 has 33 Arabic speakers, just six of whom are at the level of fluency.”

How did that happen? One explanation is bureaucratic closed-mindedness:

The pathetic language skills at the embassy are as I understand it largely a side-effect of the security clearance process. Anyone who has spent time in an Arabic speaking country outside the framework of military or diplomatic service is generically excluded, leaving only those trained stateside at DLI and similar institutions, whose pedagogical techniques are basically back in the 60s.

This isn’t unique to the Baghdad embassy; the FBI, coincidentally, also has only 33 Arabists of its own - and again, one reason cited is that “it is easier to get a security clearance if you don’t have any interaction with foreigners”.

I can only hope that competent linguists are hired to work on a contract basis - because the idea of America’s Iraq policy being run almost entirely by people who can’t communicate with Iraqis is frightening.