• Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission (Part I)

    July 11, 2011

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Other Ideas

    What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Three languages? Trilingual. Only one language? An American.

    If you had to reduce diplomacy to a single function, it would be “talking to foreigners.” The Department of State talks to foreigners. We talk with them about nuclear treaties, we talk with them about Americans in jail abroad, we talk with them about who the President will visit with and, in Iraq, we talked with them about reconstruction. We talked about what we thought they needed, we talked with them about whose brother-in-law would get the next contract, we talked with them about not killing us at checkpoints. We talked a lot; it is what we do.

    The problem is that we talked to Iraqis almost exclusively in English, or at least we spoke English, and relied on a rogues gallery of so-called translators and interpreters (the Army called them ‘terps and therefore so did we). The fact that very, very few Americans involved in either destroying Iraq or rebuilding Iraq spoke any Arabic was a huge problem. No one will ever know how much of our failure in reconstructing Iraq was caused simply by bad translation, but it would be a decent percentage.

    This was and is a significant problem, with two nasty sides to it.

    The first side is that even now, ten years after 9/11, very few people in the Department of State speak decent Arabic. Of the approximate 7600 Foreign Service Officers, only 380 speak Arabic at a “general professional level,” a language test score of 3/3 for you Foggy Bottom insiders. This score means that the individual is “Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics. Nevertheless, the individual’s limitations generally restrict the professional contexts of language use to matters of shared knowledge and/or international convention.” So those folks speak Arabic pretty well, but nobody is saying fluent. In fact, in US Embassy Yemen’s example, a senior official complained that a level 3/3 proficiency in Arabic is not enough for mission officers to participate in debates about US foreign policy in Arabic.

    (How does the State Department test languages anyway?)

    However, on average, only 64 percent of FSOs are overseas at any one time, so of those 380 Arabic speakers, only 243 are outside the Beltway today. Because of State’s whacky assignments system, there is no assurance that an Arabic speaker will be assigned to an Arabic speaking country, or a Chinese speaker to China for that matter. All sorts of things can affect assignment, including that many native speakers of a language (say a naturalized Pakistani-born FSO) often are not assigned “home” for security reasons. Whatever portion of those 243 Arabic speakers who are abroad are spread across 23 posts in the Middle East. Lastly, of the subset of officers, statistically over 35 percent have less than five years of service with the Department—so-called entry level officers—and typically are assigned visa work or other junior tasks. That knocks out a few more, leaving us an estimated 130 or so FSOs who can have a semi-professional conversation in Arabic.

    No one knows the numbers, but you will need to also deduct a few for people not medically qualified to serve overseas, those in jobs that limit them to inside the Embassy and a couple who might have gotten the right test score but don’t actually speak Arabic all that well in practice, book learners.

    That latter variable is no joke—the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found substandard skills in 31 percent of the approximately 3600 FSO jobs that require a certain level of language proficiency, up from 29 percent in 2005. In Iraq, 57 percent lacked sufficient language skills. Overall, forty-three percent of officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the requirements of their positions. Doh! Doh! again, however you would say it in French.

    So not very many people in the State Department can speak Arabic. In fact, on both of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) Peter led in Iraq, not a single subject matter expert, contractor or FSO spoke a word of Arabic. No one in our parent Army units did either. We all used translators, the ‘terps.

    Most Americans’ don’t speak a foreign language, and have only had their high school French or Spanish as a guide. In reality (Peter speaks Japanese and Mandarin at the general professional level), it is really freaking hard to learn a foreign language as an adult. There is something biological to all this; kids pick up languages well, but adults really sweat it out to get beyond simple greetings and memorized phrases. You can’t just order up more Arabic speakers. It works both ways, for Americans trying to learn Arabic and native speakers of Arabic who are trying to learn English (Quick test. If you think you speak a foreign language well, translate this out loud, respectfully and persuasively: “Unlike as we discussed at the council session, changes to our fiscal plans meant that the dike was be built upstream of your farm, unfortunately flooding your pasture. We are unable to pay compensation for your deceased goats.”). The very few who can really handle languages fluently get big bucks and work for the White House or the UN, not at a remote PRT, even if that’s the tip of the spear in the war on terror.

    The majority of our ‘terps were Iraqi-Americans. They had immigrated to the US and become citizens years ago. Most were from Detroit or Chicago, recruited by subcontractors for their alleged language skills. Most of our Iraqi-American translators were employees of an Alaskan Native-owned business. This business had one employee in the US, an Alaskan Native far away in Alaska, and subcontracted to some other business that recruited Iraqi-Americans in Detroit or Chicago and sent those people to us in Iraq. To help support minority businesses such as those owned by Alaskan Natives, the US government offered them an advantage in the otherwise competitive bidding process, a sort of contracting affirmative action, even as they subbed out 100 percent of the work and lent nothing to the company but their name and ethnicity. It seemed like a get-rich-quick internet scam, but this one apparently worked.

    The Iraqi-Americans made six-figure salaries, got free trips home and the sweet benefits that all contractors hauled in. Many of them had not lived in Iraq for years yet we used them as cultural advisors. Some had lived entirely within Iraqi-American communities in the US and spoke poor English, yet served as translators. Some were Kurdish and/or Christian, which no doubt impressed the Muslim Arabs we primarily interacted with. Trust and personal relationships are critical to doing things in the Middle East (as well as in Iowa, really) and we had the tools to establish neither.

    It gets worse. Most ‘terps used by the Army, and often the PRTs, were hired locally. Typically this meant a young man (most women still stayed home in free Iraq) who had learned some English somewhere who could pass security vetting. Often times the kid was good-hearted but knew relatively little English. His manners were rough and tough, making interactions with older government officials, educated sheiks and those who thought themselves important lame exercises. Between the bad English and the bad manners, very little got done.

    Though Iraqis will shout their opinions at you in the street and wave their hands like a crack-crazed aerobics teacher to make a point, it was hard for us to sort out what they said from what they meant from what was what they thought you wanted to hear. Add in a bad translator who reduced three minutes of spittle-flying speech to “He disagrees but loves all Americans and Obama President” and you often had no idea what was going on.

    Not knowing what was going on became sort of a problem in our efforts to rebuild Iraq. It meant having no way to verify what was being said around you—did your amateur translator make a grammar mistake or did he ask for a bribe? Are the frowns because your offer was too low or because the English slang ended up being mistranslated as something rude in Arabic? We did not know. We had no way to know. We just had to live with it, because there was no other way. Not to beat a dead horse, but while we meant well, we acted foolishly in a way that preordained failure.

    It had to end poorly.




    See Part II of this article…


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