State desperate for envoys to learn Arabic

The State Department, in an unprecedented move highlighting its desperate need for Arabic speakers, is allowing U.S. diplomats to curtail their current assignments anywhere in the world and begin Arabic language training in September.

Foreign Service officers who are interested in learning Arabic or improving existing skills have until the end of July to apply for more than 100 positions in Arabic-speaking countries that will open in the next two years.

Asked why the program has been initiated only now — nearly six years after the September 11, 2001, attacks and more than four years into the Iraq war — department officials cited a lack of resources.

In a cable to all State Department employees worldwide on Wednesday, George M. Staples, director-general of the Foreign Service, urged them to seriously consider learning “one of the more difficult foreign languages for English speakers to master.”

“We recognize that we must improve our ability to understand and influence an area of continuing importance to our nation’s well-being,” Mr. Staples wrote in the cable, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

The department “will consider breaking any tenured employee out of his/her current assignment for a September 2007 language start: for either the two-year program or one-year to improve or take existing Arabic language skills beyond your current level,” he wrote.

Junior officers must get tenure within five years of joining in order to remain in the service. That benchmark is separate from the promotion process.

The State Department has about 270 employees with “general professional proficiency” in Arabic — or speaking and reading ability sufficient to do their jobs — according to department figures. Another 700 have limited knowledge.

The department, on which Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen P. Hughes has put a particular emphasis on improving the U.S. image in the Arab and Muslim world, has been criticized repeatedly since 2001 for its shortage of Arabic speakers.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February that her agency is “putting a great effort into language development for our diplomats,” and that “this country has been underinvested in the study of critical languages like Arabic, Farsi, even Chinese, for a very long time.”

She noted, however, that “this is something that takes awhile to remedy,” and officials yesterday could not explain why it took them years to make their latest decision, saying they try to do their best with the available resources.

A report by the bipartisan Foreign Affairs Council this week criticized Miss Rice for failing to request more funds for the department despite her influence with President Bush.

Mr. Staples‘ cable contained a list of the Arabic-language positions for which employees can bid. Those officers who require only a year of training can apply for jobs opening in 2008, and those who need two years for slots opening in 2009.

Out of the 48 positions next year, 27 are at the embassy in Baghdad. In the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, where State Department personnel work together with the military, Arabic is not required but is strongly encouraged.

Plucking dozens of diplomats out of their current assignments is not likely to be welcomed by the management of the “losing posts,” officials said. They insist that there are important countries outside the Middle East and expressed concern that missions in other key areas could suffer from the early departure of some employees.

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