America’s language problem in the Middle East signals a bigger quandary
For the first time since before COVID struck, the American University of Iraq/Sulaimani, where I am a trustee, hosted its Sulaimani Forum, a gathering of top Iraqi and Kurdish leaders, foreign diplomats, and analysts and journalists who focus on the Middle East in general, and Iraq in particular.
This year’s forum was notable for having among its attendees Iraq’s immediate past president, Barham Salih, who founded the university; recently appointed Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani; the Kurdish Region’s president, Nechirvan Barzani; and the region’s deputy prime minister, Qubad Talabani. All four men sat side by side, even though the relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdish region remains tense. Friction between Barzani’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK) and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is even worse, in both cases because of disputes over budget allocations.
Although the conference highlighted Iraq’s many political and economic challenges — among them, climate change, power shortages, repatriation of refugees, and the role of semi-independent militias — there was little open discussion of Iran’s dominating (indeed, almost suffocating) influence in the country.
On the other hand, the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran agreement did receive considerable attention, both in plenary panels and in many sidebar discussions. Moreover, despite sincere assurances from Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Terry Wolff, whom the White House dispatched to the forum — following upon similar promises from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who had visited Iraq the previous week — that Washington remains committed to maintaining its presence and role in the Middle East, and particularly in Iraq, Iraqis and others from the region remained unconvinced.
On the other hand, Russian analyst Elena Suponina captured everyone’s attention by addressing the audience in fluent Iraqi Arabic dialect. It was almost as if her ability to speak in the local language outweighed the content of her remarks, which hewed to the Kremlin line regarding Ukraine, as well as the importance of “multipolarity” — meaning China’s growing role — in the region. She stressed that Russia, like China, is engaged in mediation among tense Middle Eastern neighbors — notably Iran, Turkey and Syria — with the implication that Washington’s sour relations with Damascus and Tehran obviated its ability to do the same.
Suponina’s appearance at the forum was not without controversy. Upon hearing that she would be on the same panel as the Russian analyst, Ann Linde, the former Swedish foreign minister, initially refused to participate in the discussion. She relented only when she was seated at the opposite end of the long stage, with several other panelists between them. And she challenged all of Suponina’s assertions, most notably with respect to Ukraine.
That a Russian could speak the local Arabic dialect so well stood in stark contrast to the lack of any Arabic on the part of a number of key American embassy staff who also attended the conference. How any diplomat can function in such a highly charged environment without mastering the local language is something of a mystery. Diplomats should have the ability to listen to a local radio station, watch television without English subtitles, and perhaps even tell an off-color joke in the local language, in order to fully appreciate a country’s political, cultural and social developments.
It is not enough to speak to the local populace through a translator; far too often, translators do not fully comprehend the local dialect and, as a result, what is transmitted to Americans is only partially accurate, if it is accurate at all.
That there are members of the American embassy staff lacking fluency in Arabic, or even an elementary knowledge of the language, begs the question of how they can effectively analyze and respond to what is an exceedingly complex environment. Moreover, it is especially ironic that they have at their disposal the State Department’s Foreign Service Language Institute, which offers top-notch language training to those who attend its courses.
Admittedly, Arabic is a difficult language for English speakers; the Foreign Service Language Institute classifies it as “very hard.” But it is not impossible to learn. It certainly was not beyond the ken of the British when they dominated much of the region until the mid-20th century, and their diplomats still master the language today.
The inability of American diplomats to speak Arabic, the region’s lingua franca, reinforces the impression that, despite Biden administration pronouncements to the contrary, the Middle East simply is no longer that important to Washington policymakers. That is a dangerous signal for Washington to transmit at a time when Moscow is in no mood to relinquish its Middle Eastern role and China continues to expand its political activity in this dynamic yet still very troubled region.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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