On November 7, 2005, I sat in seat 13C on American Airlines flight 4631 from Austin to Raleigh, which then connected to another flight to Washington. America’s representative to the Arab world, Karen Hughes, was seated in 13B.

We had met before, in the late 1990s, while I was working for the Austin Chronicle and Hughes was Gov. George W. Bush’s chief press aide. After exchanging pleasantries, I inquired about her new job. About three months earlier, Bush had appointed her under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Her portfolio included engaging the Arab community and, as the State Department’s website explains, confronting “ideological support for terrorism around the world.”

I asked the obvious question: was she learning to speak Arabic? “No,” she quickly replied. “I’m too old for that.” Interesting. So what were the Bush administration’s plans for development in the Islamic world? Were they going to encourage literacy, sponsor English-language programs, or perhaps build some libraries? Hughes made it clear that language skills and libraries were not in their game plan. “I don’t care if they can read,” Hughes declared. “I just don’t want them to bomb us.”

Therein lies the essence of the Bush administration’s attitude toward the Arab world: We don’t need to learn the language. We don’t need to engage them on a cultural level. We just need to engage our massive military machinery, and all will be fine.


But all is not fine. The Iraq War is growing more catastrophic by the day. The danger of another bloody conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is rising. The death toll from the fighting in Lebanon between government forces and Islamic groups is mounting. And America’s image throughout the Islamic and Arabic-speaking world continues to be pummeled.

Perhaps at no time in recent memory has America’s relationship with the Islamic world been at a lower ebb than it is today. And yet the U.S. military, State Department, and American intelligence agencies appear to have little, if any, interest in increasing their Arabic language skills. That dire lack will hamstring America’s ability to engage the Arab world for years to come and will likely assure that the “long war” that the Pentagon keeps talking about will become a reality.

There are now 280 million people on the planet who speak Arabic, making it the fourth most common language after Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and English. By next year, some 43 million Arabic-speaking people will be using the Internet.

Contrast those numbers with these two figures: six and 33.

Six. That’s the number of American personnel stationed inside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad who can speak Arabic fluently, according to the Iraq Study Group. While most of the media’s attention focused on the report’s recommendations for a multilateral approach to American involvement in Iraq, one of the most important findings was buried on page 92: the American Embassy in Baghdad, which has some 1,000 State Department personnel (that number does not include all of the service and security workers) has just 33 people who can speak Arabic at all, only 6 of whom are fluent.

And 33. Coincidentally, that’s also the number of personnel inside the FBI who can speak any Arabic. According to a Washington Post story published last October, the agency’s International Terrorism Operations Sections “do not require any agents to know Arabic, even though the sections coordinate all foreign terrorism investigations. Only four agents in ITOS have any familiarity with Arabic, and none of them are ranked above elementary proficiency.” The head of one of the ITOS sections, Michael J. Heimbach, testified in a deposition that “knowledge of the Arabic language is not a skill set utilized by [the counter-terrorism group].” Further, out of the 12,000 agents at the FBI, only six were ranked as either “advanced professional” or “advanced professional, plus” when it came to Arabic skills.

Need more bad news? There’s plenty. Last August, a study by the Government Accountability Office found that at the State Department, of 160 positions requiring proficiency in Arabic, only 64—or about 40 percent—were filled by qualified personnel. When it came to specialists in Arab culture, the GAO found that 75 percent of the jobs at the State Department were staffed by people who couldn’t meet the requirements. “Many public diplomacy officers in the Muslim world cannot communicate with local audiences as well as their positions require,” said the GAO. “For example, an information officer in Cairo stated that his office does not have enough Arabic speaking staff to engage the Egyptian media effectively.”

Arabic is an extremely difficult language for English speakers to learn. It requires a minimum of one year of full-time study to become capable and far longer to be truly fluent. That kind of time commitment has little appeal in an impatient American culture that wants things to happen right away. But the gulf between the U.S. and the Arab world isn’t just about language. It’s also about a basic level of cultural awareness.

Last year, Jeff Stein, the national security editor at Congressional Quarterly, wrote a story that revealed that some of the highest ranking members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Congress don’t even know the difference between Sunnis and Shia. In one instance, Stein asked Willie Hulon, the head of the FBI’s new national security branch, which Islamic sect dominated Hezbollah and Iran. Hulon responded “Sunni.” Wrong.

When Stein put similar questions to Congressman Terry Everett, the outgoing Republican vice chairman of a subcommittee in the House of Representatives responsible for intelligence issues, Everett said that the split between Sunnis and Shi’ites was “differences in their religion, different families, or something.” Another member of Congress had a similarly vague response, saying that the “Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa.”

Stein continues to do great reporting on this issue. On May 25, he wrote about an early 2001 meeting between Doug Feith, a leading neoconservative and architect of the Iraq War, and Patrick Lang. Feith was looking for someone to head the Pentagon’s office of special operations. Lang, a former Green Beret who had done three tours in South Vietnam, was a top candidate—or at least he was until he met with Feith. When Feith learned that Lang spoke Arabic, and spoke it well, and that Lang “really know[s] the Arabs,” Feith told Lang that it was “too bad.”

In the neocons’ worldview, knowing Arabs, and even worse, knowing how to talk to them, counts as a negative. Needless to say, Feith didn’t hire Lang for the job.

It’s not just the Bush administration that discounts the need for Arabic. The U.S. military has more interest in high-tech weapons than in cultural and language skills. This year, the military will spend about $200 million on the Defense Language Institute, the school that teaches foreign languages to about 3,500 soldiers and other government officials each year. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is now purchasing more than 181 copies of the F-22 fighter plane; each one costs $361 million. In other words, the U.S. is spending nearly twice as much to buy a single airplane as it spends per year teaching language skills to its personnel. And it is doing so even as U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq continue to be desperately short of Arabic speakers who can help them deal with the ongoing insurgency.

The need for Arabic language skills is not just about Iraq, it’s about America’s strategic future and the changing character of warfare. Military historian and theorist Martin van Creveld, who teaches at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is among a growing group of analysts who believe that warfare is moving away from major clashes between nation-states and toward more insurgent-type conflicts. “Future wars,” he wrote in 2000, “will be overwhelmingly of the type known, however inaccurately, as ‘low intensity.’” For Creveld, that means that the world’s military forces will “have to adjust themselves to this situation by changing their doctrine, doing away with much of their heavy equipment and becoming more like the police.”

Police work requires knowing the people in the neighborhood. It requires discussion and frequent contacts. With regard to the Arab and Islamic worlds, it means understanding the worldviews of groups like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and, of course, al-Qaeda.

Chet Richards, a retired Air Force officer who speaks Arabic and was stationed in Saudi Arabia, believes that the changing character of warfare means that “cultural knowledge is as important—or more important—than putting munitions on targets.” Alas, Richards, who has written extensively on both modern warfare and on the strategies of America’s greatest military theorist, the late John Boyd, believes that “when it comes to cultural understanding of the Arab world, we aren’t even on first base.” 

Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune and the author of two books on the Texas energy business. His third book, on the mirage of energy independence, will be published in early 2008.