After Sputnik, It Was Russian; After 9/11, Should It Be Arabic?
The New York Times, June 16, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman
Less than a year after the Soviet Union launched a satellite named Sputnik in October 1957, America answered with a counterstrike. It was a piece of legislation, the National Defense Education Act, which aimed at harnessing brain power rather than weaponry for the cold war.
Mostly, the statute poured federal money into stimulating the study of mathematics and science, disciplines most relevant to the arms race, but a portion provided incentives for universities to develop skilled speakers of strategic languages, especially Russian.
Over more than three decades, as the support for language study was written into other federal laws, a steady stream of 30,000 or more American university students took Russian courses each year.
They became not only the translators, cryptologists and intelligence agents required for what President John F. Kennedy famously called the "long twilight struggle" between Communism and the West but also the scholars, diplomats and sundry Sovietologists who in many ways enacted the policy of detente and assisted in the peaceful resolution of the cold war.
Now, nearly three years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and amid a turbulent occupation of Iraq, Congress and the Bush administration have failed to endorse and endow a similar cohort of civilian experts in the languages of the Muslim world.
While the administration has given priority to training more linguists within the military and the national-security apparatus, legislation modeled on the National Defense Education Act and offered repeatedly over several years by Congressional Democrats has not even made it out committee.
Meanwhile, of more than 1.8 million graduates of American colleges and universities in 2003, exactly 22 took degrees in Arabic, according to Department of Education statistics.
"Compared to the cold war, we're not even at the level of zero," said Dan E. Davidson, the president of the American Councils for International Education in Washington and a professor of Russian at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. "We're at minus one."
Such views are widely shared among experts in languages and national security. "In the post-9-11 world, we've continued to not get the profundity of the problem," said Ellen Laipson, a linguist and former intelligence official who is now president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington public policy institute focusing on national security issues. "We're reduced to putting 800 numbers on the TV screen asking for people who speak Arabic."
Ms. Laipson referred to one of several episodes in the immediate aftermath of the Al Qaeda attacks that laid bare the government's language gap. The F.B.I. had a backlog of thousands of hours of audiotape and thousands of pages of written material in Arabic and Central Asian languages waiting for translation.
The State Department had to call a diplomat fluent in Arabic back from retirement to appear on the Al Jazeera cable network. A report in early 2002 by the General Accounting Office confirmed that shortages of linguists had "hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts."
Representative Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey who has sponsored several measures on language education in the House, recalled meeting with Special Forces soldiers who had been involved in the futile hunt for Osama bin Laden. None, Mr. Holt said, was fluent in Pashto, the primary language along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
"There doesn't seem to be anywhere in our government a strategic view about how you get a new flow of linguists," Mr. Holt said in an interview last week. "It's all based on the assumption there's a pool of linguists already out there. And that's a fallacious assumption."
"Last year, Mr. Holt introduced the National Security Language Act, which would have put at least $75 million into encouraging study of critical languages from primary school through the graduate level and culling skilled speakers from ethnic and immigrant communities.
"Two Democratic senators, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, offered a similar package of incentives both in 2001 and 2003 under the rubric of the Homeland Security Education Act. Without Republican backing, those measures went nowhere.
"The Bush administration instead has relied heavily on the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif., to meet the nation's linguistic needs. By design, however, the institute serves only military personnel, accommodating up to 3,500 annually with courses in 21 languages. Trent Duffy, a deputy press secretary in the White House, said the Bush administration addressed nonmilitary language needs with $100 million in aid under the Higher Education Act. "Past that," he said, "it's left up to the individual student which fields to pursue."
Experts in language study offer several reasons for the administration's seeming indifference. President Bush's involvement in education is centered on the No Child Left Behind law, which itself has not been fully financed. Neoconservatives inside and outside government have assailed Middle East studies departments -- the likely recipients of any increased federal money for advanced study of Arabic and related languages -- for alleged bias against the United States and Israel. It is expensive and time-consuming to conduct security checks of Arab immigrants interested in serving as linguists.
"We can hope, but hope won't do it," said Richard Brecht, a former Air Force cryptographer who is executive director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Language, a joint project of the Defense Department and the University of Maryland based in College Park. "Five billion dollars for an F-22 will not help us in the battle against terrorism. Language that helps us understand why they're trying to harm us will."
Congress will soon demonstrate whether such a realization is taking hold. This week Representative Holt and several Republican co-sponsors are introducing two bills that amount to a pared-down version of his National Security Language Act, this time focusing on higher education and adult civilians at a fraction of the original price tag.
"If Osama bin Laden is indeed America's most wanted," Mr. Holt said, "then clearly we're limited if we can't speak the language of the people who might be hiding him."