Politics & Policy

Language@War

The Middle East-studies front.

Which president do you trust to stock our defense and intelligence agencies with Arabic-speaking experts who can prosecute the war on terror: the president of the United States, George W. Bush, or the president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), Juan Cole? You’re going to have to decide, because presidents Bush and Cole are even now involved in a tug-of-war over the administration’s newly announced National Security Language Initiative.

In a sense, National Review Online and its readers are involved as well. Years of public infighting (much of it covered on NRO) over failed Title VI subsidies to Middle East-studies programs have prompted the administration to attempt an end-run around professor Cole and his friends. Instead of pouring millions more dollars into programs that have failed to produce government linguists, the administration is trying something new.

Last month, the president launched a major new language-training initiative directly tied to our defense and intelligence agencies, with robust requirements for government service in exchange for government subsidies. Cole and the academic establishment are not pleased. They’ll soon be doing everything they can to water down government-service requirements and break the link between this new scholarship program and our defense and intelligence agencies.

The President’s New Plan

Addressing an audience of university presidents at the State Department on January 5, the president tied his new $114 million language initiative directly to the war on terror. Although the education establishment routinely demands that language scholarships be sponsored by the Department of Education alone, the president noted that the new initiative would be supervised, not only by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, but also by Secretary of State Rice, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, all of whom were in the audience as the president spoke.

Secretary Rumsfeld, the president said, “wants his young soldiers, who are on the front lines of finding these killers, to be able to speak their language and be able to listen to the people in the communities in which they live.” “We need intelligence officers,” said the president, “who when somebody says something in Arabic or Farsi or Urdu, know what they’re talking about.” The president is right. The need is profound. Of course, we know that intercepts from the 9/11 hijackers were left unheeded for want of translators. But the lack of trained linguists continues to hurt us in many other ways. A covert American attempt to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities would be particularly difficult because of the lack of linguistic competence in our defense and intelligence agencies. American troops risk alienating the very Iraqis they’re trying to help when they can’t communicate with them. And the critical task of

translating Saddam’s captured documents has been slowed, in large part, because we have so few translators.

So do America’s educators want to help? Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley learned a year ago in discussions with the CIA that their needs were “desperate.” Yet Birgeneau told the New York Times that as far as America’s college presidents are concerned, language training for the government is “not our central focus.” John C. Eisele, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic said of the president’s National Security Language Initiative, “This is not really a good thing.” Ali Banuazizi, who preceded Juan Cole as president of MESA, said that, “placing language learning within security studies…is not good educational policy.” Richard S. Meyers, president of Webster University in St. Louis, which has campuses in nine foreign countries, said he hoped the new initiative would not be “connected with some kind of government commitment before you get your education.” After the president’s remarks, Peg Lee, president of Oakton Community College, in Illinois, said “I wish there had been less emphasis on defense [and] more emphasis on building global community.” And MESA president Juan Cole himself said he was troubled by the Pentagon’s role and noted that MESA had “urged people to be cautious about taking money that has strings attached.”

Disingenuous Academics

Of course, Cole and the others profess to be happy that the government is spending more money on language education. They just want those strings removed. But why? After all, there’s no special title of the higher-education act devoted to subsidizing programs of art history or philosophy. The federal government subsidizes Middle East and other area studies programs for reasons of national security. The government is perfectly entitled to see that it gets something in return for its investment. Despite the millions of federal dollars they regularly pocket, area studies programs have failed to create a significant pool of recruits for our defense and intelligence agencies. That’s why the president has decided that instead of increasing funding for Title VI, it’s time to try a new approach with more accountability.

The excuse most frequently offered for opposing scholarship service requirements at our defense and intelligence agencies is the supposed danger this poses to students in the field. What if people in other countries start to see American field researchers as spies? But field workers in the Third World have worked under such suspicions for decades. No scholarship is going to change that one way or the other. The National Security Education Program has had a government-service requirement for years, and field workers have had only a few, isolated problems abroad, no more than field workers without NSEP scholarships. Can you imagine these lefty professors objecting to students working for civil rights in the American South because it might put them in danger? Our professors are happy to feed off of millions of taxpayer dollars. Will they do nothing in return to safeguard the lives of our troops?

Worry over student field workers is a bogus cover story. The truth emerged when the Boston Globe went to Boston College law professor Kent Greenfield, who heads FAIR, the organization that sued Secretary Rumsfeld to bar military recruiters from law schools. Asked about the National Security Language Initiative, Greenfield warned that universities must not be coopted by the government’s agenda: “I think the Cold War is instructive,” said Greenfield. “During the 1950’s and the McCarthy era, what really hurt America at that time was the absence of independent voices and skepticism.” Sounds like FAIR’s suit against the Pentagon has much more to do with anti-militarism than with “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s this opposition to America’s military, not concern for the safety of field workers, that stands behind the academy’s opposition to language scholarships that call for service in our defense and intelligence agencies.

The outrageous boycott of the National Security Education Program levied by the Middle East Studies Association and other scholarly associations are motivated by this anti-militarism. MESA won’t even accept advertisements from our defense or intelligence agencies in its publications. Yet MESA affiliated scholars like president Juan Cole are happy to take taxpayer subsidies.

The shame of it all is that the education establishment goes to Congress actually claiming to be willing to contribute to national security. Cole himself told NPR that the government’s shortage of trained linguists could be blamed on too-small Title VI subsidies. (Actually, at $90 million, Title VI dwarfs other federal scholarship programs. And despite fifty years of subsidies, we are still in a language mess.) Cole’s call for still more Title VI money was echoed by Miriam Kazanjian, a consultant with the Coalition for International Education, and echoed again by Anne Betteridge, director at the University of Arizona’s Center For Middle Eastern Studies.

Funny how NPR’s Elaine Korry managed to quote three members of the Middle East Studies establishment begging for still more no-strings Title VI subsidies, without consulting a single critic. If she had, Korry may have figured out why President Bush is not about to trust Juan Cole and his MESA colleagues with a massive no-strings increase in Title VI subsidies. Congress tried that right after 9/11, and we’re facing exactly the same shortage of linguists as before Professor Cole and his friends got more money. These professors haven’t helped the war effort, because they don’t want to help.

Fortunately, NPR and the rest of the mainstream media have lost their information monopoly. Sites like NRO, and bloggers like Martin Kramer at Sandstorm, have exposed the games academics play: asking congress for millions of no-strings dollars for “national security” and delivering little or nothing in return.

The Washington Post, on the other hand, doesn’t get it. Recently the Post editorialized on the National Security Language Initiative. Said the Post, “the lateness and modesty of this initiative are perplexing.” After all, asked the Post, hadn’t President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, just a year after Sputnik? Well, yes, but the National Defense Education Act is still around. In 1965, its name was changed to Title VI of the Higher Education Act. And as we’ve seen, Congress did increase spending for Title VI immediately after 9/11, with pathetic results. The Post is naively assuming that America’s academic establishment is just as eager to help with the war on terror as it was to help with the Cold War. No wonder the administration wants to wait to see how this new program works before committing more funds.

Getting Tough

So the president’s new National Security Language Initiative is a major victory for those of us who have long criticized Title VI. The need for more government linguists is all too real. Yet instead of pouring good money after bad, the administration has developed a new program, closely tied to the defense and intelligence establishment, with real requirements for government service. If it weren’t for public criticisms of Title VI, Professor Cole and his MESA cohorts might even now be spending more than a hundred million new dollars of no-strings government money.

But this victory is really only the beginning of a new battle. It’s clear from the remarks of Cole and the others that the academy is going to do everything in its power to remove government service requirements and detach these new scholarships from the defense establishment. They’ve done it before. (See Who Will Defend the Defenders? on NRO.) It will take vigilance to prevent the destruction of yet another well-intentioned national security language scholarship initiative.

And the Title VI battle has not yet been resolved. While NSLI may make a successful end run around the troubled Title VI program, Congress is still considering reform of Title VI itself. (I’ll have more on that battle in the future.) The resistance of our educators to the accountability provisions in NSLI shows how badly we need federal oversight of Title VI itself. There is a deeply routed tension between the interests of government and the interests of the academy in language scholarship programs. (See Learning the Language, also on NRO.) The academy cannot be trusted to assess and govern its own subsidies, because it will always try to turn them into “free money,” forgetting the national=security needs that created the subsidies in the first place.

Why should we have to fight this battle? Why can’t our educators differentiate between legitimate political opposition and attempts to hamstring our military and intelligence agencies? Let’s resolve our policy differences in the political arena. But if our country is at war, and our soldiers are in danger, there should be no question of trying to undermine or boycott scholarships tied to national defense. Sadly, however, the tug-of-war is on. I know which president I’m rooting for.

Most Popular

The Capital Note

Palantir’s Eye-Popping Rally

Welcome to the Capital Note, a newsletter about business, finance and economics. On the menu today: Palantir shares skyrocket, a giant of labor economics passes away, Slack in acquisition talks with Salesforce, and Yellen’s plans for Treasury-Fed cooperation. The Palantir Bump: Politics or Product? Palantir, ... Read More
The Capital Note

Palantir’s Eye-Popping Rally

Welcome to the Capital Note, a newsletter about business, finance and economics. On the menu today: Palantir shares skyrocket, a giant of labor economics passes away, Slack in acquisition talks with Salesforce, and Yellen’s plans for Treasury-Fed cooperation. The Palantir Bump: Politics or Product? Palantir, ... Read More
White House

Implications of the Flynn Pardon

President Trump granted a pardon to Michael Flynn, his former national-security adviser, today. Flynn had pled guilty to lying to FBI agents about conversations, during the 2016 transition, with the Russian ambassador about sanctions. Flynn’s pardon should bring to an end one gross violation of the ... Read More
White House

Implications of the Flynn Pardon

President Trump granted a pardon to Michael Flynn, his former national-security adviser, today. Flynn had pled guilty to lying to FBI agents about conversations, during the 2016 transition, with the Russian ambassador about sanctions. Flynn’s pardon should bring to an end one gross violation of the ... Read More
History

The 1620 Project

On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower arrived on the eastern coast of North America. She had weathered the slings and arrows of maritime misfortune for almost ten weeks at that point, but the passengers thought the discomfort of crossing a small price to pay for passage to the Promised Land. After all, these were ... Read More
History

The 1620 Project

On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower arrived on the eastern coast of North America. She had weathered the slings and arrows of maritime misfortune for almost ten weeks at that point, but the passengers thought the discomfort of crossing a small price to pay for passage to the Promised Land. After all, these were ... Read More
History

Thanksgiving Is Not a Lie

We live in a time of heedless iconoclasm, and so one of the country’s oldest traditions is under assault. Thanksgiving is increasingly portrayed as, at best, based on falsehoods and, at worst, a whitewash of genocide against Native Americans. The New York Times ran a piece the other day titled, “The ... Read More
History

Thanksgiving Is Not a Lie

We live in a time of heedless iconoclasm, and so one of the country’s oldest traditions is under assault. Thanksgiving is increasingly portrayed as, at best, based on falsehoods and, at worst, a whitewash of genocide against Native Americans. The New York Times ran a piece the other day titled, “The ... Read More
Culture

On Being Grateful

My mother always enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner. She took a traditional Southern woman’s pride in being a good cook, following her mother’s recipes, and my family made a rare display of kindness by declining to inform her that she was a fairly dreadful cook, one whose kitchen alchemy on the electric range ... Read More
Culture

On Being Grateful

My mother always enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner. She took a traditional Southern woman’s pride in being a good cook, following her mother’s recipes, and my family made a rare display of kindness by declining to inform her that she was a fairly dreadful cook, one whose kitchen alchemy on the electric range ... Read More