Language Deficit and Disdain for Arabists
Jim Henley applauds the Iraq Study Group for pointing out our incredible dearth of Arab speakers but observes, “It’s too late. The time to start to instill competency in the language and culture of the society you’re trying to scare-quotes transform is not more than four years after deciding to take the place over.” Agreed, except that it’s been clear for at least fifteen years, not just four, that we needed more Middle Eastern linguistic and cultural expertise. It’s just unconscionable that this hasn’t been corrected.
He observes that one of the reasons for this is that “DOD tarred anyone with much knowledge of or sympathy for Arabic language or culture as an ‘Arabist‘ and kept them as far away from the project as possible. Ignorance was purity.”
While I take Jim’s point, I actually understand the concerns about the “Arabists.” My dealings with academics and practitioners alike who are Middle East subject matter experts is that, unlike any other regional experts I have ever encountered, they tend to be fanatics. Most lose their analytic objectivity and “go native,” picking sides and mimicking the irrational contempt for the other side endemic in the region.
UPDATE: I hasten to add, slightly fanatical people with language and cultural training are preferable to “purists” without same. I am merely explaining the reaction against the so-called Arabists rather than approving.
UPDATE: More clarification is required, I think, on the second point above. My view here is anecdotal, to be sure, but based on quite a bit of dealing with Area Studies academics and many encounters with Foreign Area Officers, Foreign Service Officers, and the like. It’s not a universal phenomenon–for example, occasional OTB contributor John Burgess could reasonably be termed an “Arabist” and is by no means fanatical.
Further, I’m mostly thinking of people who immerse themselves in the study of a Middle Eastern culture for its own sake rather than with a specific functional perspective. People who study the region in the context of terrorism or intelligence analysis tend to approach things from a more detached view and seem much less apt to “go native.”