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

    July 12, 2011

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq, Other Ideas

    In addition to the obvious opportunities for waste, fraud, corruption and just plain stupidity, the real problem is how lack of language capability within the State Department contributes to the further militarization of foreign policy.

    There really are more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Despite the role that foreign affairs has always played in America’s drunken intercourse abroad, the State Department remains a very small part of the pageant. At the same time, Congress continues to hack away at State’s budget. As head-count shrinks, the number of FSOs who can be pulled off the assembly line and sent to Arabic training (it takes two full-time years of study in the State Department system to have a chance at qualifying as generally professionally competent in a hard language like Arabic) the so-called “training float,” also shrinks.

    There are other, more institutional problems, as well. State insists on holding at least the first year of any language training at its campus in Arlington, VA, where students joke about learning to speak Arabic, or Dutch, or Tagalong with a Virginia accent. The Arlington location limits the pool of teachers to those who happen to live in the area, a zone rich with Homeland Security contractors snapping up good Arabic speakers for higher salaries. Officers in language training are pulled out of real contention for promotions, death in State’s up or out system and a severe disincentive. Person applying to the foreign service only get credit for foreign languages they speak after otherwise being accepted; they get little advantage in the very difficult testing and evaluation process that begins with a written test so difficult most people fail. State offers some bonus pay for language skills, but has never measured the impact of the pay incentive on increasing foreign language proficiency.

    A Congressionally-funded hiring boom between 2002-2004 that was supposed to create a “training float” was instead squandered by State in staffing the world’s largest embassy in Baghdad, as well as its smaller, twin evil sister in Kabul.

    The GAO concluded however that the worst problem is State’s bureaucracy:

    In 2002, GAO reported that State had not prepared a separate strategic plan for developing its foreign language skills or a related action plan to correct long-standing proficiency shortfalls and recommended that the Department do so.

    In 2009, seven years later, GAO wrote again that “State’s efforts to meet its foreign language requirements have yielded some results but have not closed persistent gaps and reflect, in part, a lack of a comprehensive, strategic approach.” The GAO recommended arcane techniques such as “measurable goals, objectives, milestones, and feedback mechanisms” to State.

    In a 2010 follow-up report, GAO wrote again “State has efforts underway to identify foreign language needs and capabilities, but persistent shortfalls in foreign language-proficient staff highlight the need for a comprehensive, strategic approach.”

    They are really stubborn people over there in Foggy Bottom.

    In economic terms, State’s comparative advantage has always been that we could talk to foreigners. Give that up—alongside the smaller head count, the flaccid budget—and what is left? As America continues to find new countries to invade and occupy, the chances become greater and greater that the only Americans foreigners in many Middle Eastern countries will see wear green and carry a weapon, and they’ll not be in the mood to chat.

    “We cannot effectively sway our allies or adversaries if we do not speak their language,” said Senator Daniel K. Akaka, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee. The tool box America uses to deal with issues abroad will shrink, as there will be fewer people around who can talk to foreigners.

    Guess we’ll just have to shoot more of ‘em.

    Read Part I of “Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission”

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