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Thread: Our Diplomats' Arabic Handicap

  1. #1

    Default Our Diplomats' Arabic Handicap

    16 Oct Washington Post

    Our Diplomats' Arabic Handicap

    "At a time when the U.S. government has an urgent need both to understand what's being said in the Arab world and to express our own views clearly, surely every U.S. embassy in the Mideast is staffed with at least several American diplomats who speak Arabic, right? Well, no. Four years after 9/11, we're still a very long way from achieving this fundamental goal, as the State Department's internal performance reviews and interviews with human resource and language training staff make clear. Policy is not the problem: State Department planning documents call for increased Arabic language capabilities in the Foreign Service. The problem is that the way we're going about meeting this goal guarantees failure..."

  2. #2
    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    Oct 2005
    DeRidder LA

    Smile Not much has changed


    Most outsiders have a very distorted view of how State selects, trains, and assigns personnel to the embassies. As a youngster FAO relatively fresh from DLI Arabic, I went to Sudan as a FAO traiinee. I had zero Sudanese Arabic training and had done a year in Turkey and 6 months in French training before arriving in Khartoum. That said, I found aside from certain individuals like the Ambassador, my Arabic was better than most. The Defense Attache who had gone to State langauage school and claimed a higher pro score than me was basically a "helllo, good morning, goodbye" level speaker. So this does not surprise me.

    Even when the language skills are there, embassies are not necessarily keyed into what is really happening around them. Ambassadors set the tone. Too many embassies are viewed as plums because they offer the most pay (COLA, hardship, danger) and you get youngsters sent there to get their feet wet or the "old hands" who stay and stay so their retirement pay gets maxed. The youngsters don't know how to operate and they mimic what happens among the "old hands. Other embassies get out and see what is happening beyond the "salle d'honneur" at the Foreign Ministry; they actually have a pulse on events. I had experiences on both sides of that coin. Zaire was the worst. Rwanda was the best.

    Then of course, even if an embassy does have a good read on the local scene, it does not mean that Washington will collectively listen.


    Tom Odom


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