From Martin Kramer, “Arabic Panic,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2002, pp. 88-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.
“During or after this crisis, [the academics] will find some pliant senator or congressman willing to propose additional budgets for Middle Eastern studies under the rubric of national security.” I made that prediction in The Wall Street Journal on November 15, 2001.1 I was right. On December 20, Congress rewarded the famously errant mandarins of academic Middle Eastern studies with an incredible windfall.
In a flurry of year-end legislation, both houses approved the House-Senate conference report on education appropriations for FY 2002. The bill, signed by President Bush on January 10, included a 26 percent increase for Title VI/Fulbright-Hays, the mainstay of federal support for Middle East centers and programs in the universities. The massive windfall added $20.5 million in new funding, the largest single-year increase in the program’s four-decade history. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), a long-time patron of Title VI, led the charge for the additional appropriation.
The conferees left no doubt that this increase should go largely to Middle Eastern studies. In their report, they specifically found “an urgent need” to enhance the nation’s capabilities in language fluency “relevant to understanding societies where Islamic and/or Muslim culture, politics, religion, and economy are a significant factor.” The increase is supposed to double the number of government fellowships for students whose preparation includes Arabic, Azeri, Pashto, Persian, Tajik, Urdu, and Uzbek. It will also pump new funds into university-based Middle East centers.2
It isn’t difficult to fathom the sense of urgency that drove this decision. September 11 was a great trauma, and the sums of money added to Title VI are small by Washington standards. If the United States must gird itself for a protracted war in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, why not encourage more students to take up the study of their languages and cultures? Why not strengthen the centers already subsidized by the federal government? The conferees found that “our national security, stability, and economic vitality depend, in part, on American experts who have sophisticated language skills and cultural knowledge,” especially of the Muslim world.3 Why not subcontract the job to the universities?
Alas, this ignores a sad yet inescapable truth: the academic establishment is part of the problem.
Middle Eastern studies have been in deep crisis for years. The field has been decimated by the impact of Edward Said’s post-colonialism and cut off from the American mainstream by the influx into faculty ranks of ideological radicals and activist immigrants. The most outlandish theories have flourished in this hothouse. Shelves have filled with works exalting the democratic potential of Islamist movements, even those that use terrorism. An entire cottage industry of wishful thinking has grown up around “civil society,” even though the region remains in the thrall of authoritarian regimes. The professors, absorbed by their own faddish theories, were as surprised as anyone by September 11, and even more surprised than most officials, terrorism experts, and investigative journalists.
Mingled with this has been a patent distrust of American purpose and power in the Middle East. Edward Said himself has called the evolution of Middle Eastern studies in the United States “a story of cultural opposition to Western domination.”4 A report from the most recent annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association, last November, described it as a “refreshingly flag-free zone.”5 It would be hard to find a field more detached from the idea of national security, however defined.
Yes, you say, but what about those languages? Wouldn’t it be better for more Americans to know them? “The federal government’s current Middle Eastern studies funding priorities should be languages first, second, and third” – so writes a staunch defender of Title VI funding.6 But the dirty little secret of Title VI is that while Congress appropriates money in the hope of improving “language skills and cultural knowledge,” the recipients aren’t that interested in languages or culture. Students on Title VI fellowships don’t become language experts in any significant number. They pick up as much as they need, as a supplement to their training in history, politics, anthropology, and other disciplines. Lift the hard rock of languages, and you’ll find mostly soft scientists, writhing about in theoretical circles.7 As for the study of culture, it’s regularly sacrificed to the study of disciplinary theory. As one political scientist has admitted, “the mere recognition that cultural factors matter labels specialists as anti-scientific heretics by their more dogmatic colleagues.”8
It’s difficult to see how this new investment in Middle Eastern studies could produce a return that serves the national interest. Given what goes on in some Middle East centers, perhaps the government should pay them, like farmers, not to produce anything. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, tried to pull a fast one in his testimony before Congress in April. “Most career security foreign language and area specialists in agencies such as the CIA and DIA were trained at institutions with Title VI centers,” he boasted.9 So what? There are National Resource Centers for area studies at every leading private and public university. The more important fact is that the people who actually get Title VI fellowships wouldn’t dream of working for the CIA or DIA. When The Chronicle of Higher Education spoke to a dozen job-hunting Ph.D.s in Middle Eastern studies this past spring, not one expressed any interest in government employment. “Academics just aren’t biting,” said one job candidate. “I don’t think running around chasing terrorists is the solution to this problem. Academics have a belief in the power of education to effect change.”10
Government has known for a long time that it has no choice but to teach languages to its own servants, in preparation for those instances when “the power of education” fails. This is the job of the Defense Language Institute and the Foreign Service Institute. It’s never enough, and a new GAO report underlines the language deficit in government.11 But it doesn’t list more funding for Title VI among its proposed solutions, because it isn’t a solution. Now that languages have become a public policy issue again, and additional millions are going to Title VI, perhaps Congress should order the GAO to see whether the program does what it purports to do. The GAO hasn’t inspected Title VI since 1978.12
In the meantime, the new levels of funding are here to stay. Whatever the long-term outcome of the new subsidy, its immediate effects are not in doubt. The Title VI bonanza will reinforce the authority of an otherwise failed establishment. Rather than ponder what has gone wrong, they will pat themselves on the back. They will spend their September 11 windfall to add new turrets to their ivory towers, which function more like minarets, and from which they will broadcast a muezzin’s call on behalf of Islam. Hey, what about the national interest and security of the United States? Didn’t you see the sign? This is a “flag-free zone.”
1 Martin Kramer, “Terrorism? What Terrorism?!” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 15, 2001.
2 Conference Report on H.R. 3061 (House of Representatives), Dec. 18, 2001, at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?r107:6:./temp/~r107NWcKvm:e559653:.
4 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993), p. 314.
5 David Tuller, “Not Academic: The Middle East Studies Association Wards off Rebukes,” The American Prospect Online, Nov. 29, 2001, at http://www.prospect.org/webfeatures/2001/11/tuller-d-11-29.html.
6 F. Gregory Gause III, “Who Lost Middle Eastern Studies?” Foreign Affairs, Mar.-Apr. 2002.
7 A government-contracted report on Title VI admitted as much: “Over the years, the original focus on language has been replaced with a much broader mandate for area, international, and international business studies. … functional linguistic competence in the graduates of the nation’s colleges and universities has tended to diminish.” Richard D. Brecht and William P. Rivers, Language and National Security in the 21st Century (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 2000), p. 132.
8 Jerrold D. Green, “The Politics of Middle East Politics,” PS: Political Science, Sept. 1994, p. 517.
9 David Ward testimony, at http://www.acenet.edu/washington/legalupdate/2002/04april/ward.titlevi.testimony.html.
10 Quoted by Robin Wilson, “Interest in the Islamic World Produces Academic Jobs in U.S.,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mar. 1, 2002.
11 “Foreign Languages: Human Capital Approach Needed to Correct Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls,” U.S. Government Accounting Office, GAO-02-375, Jan. 2002, at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02375.pdf.
12 “Study of Foreign Languages and Related Areas: Federal Support, Administration, Need,” Comptroller General of the United States, ID-78-46, Sept. 13, 1978.