Merchant of Death
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GAO Highlights lack of Language Proficiency of State Department in Key Regions
A new study by the GAO has found serious language deficiencies in the State Department, as well as career tracks that make it difficult for those with specific language skills to get ahead in their careers.

The study found that in critical postings such as Cairo and Sana'a, Yemen, 60 percent of the people in positions that should be filled with language proficient officers are not. In China, 71 percent of the "specialists," including those with security functions, do not meet the required language standards. In the Arab world, 75 percent of the specialists do not meet the language requirement that in theory must be met before the person can take the job.

This means that, as far as public reporting and sensitive diplomatic jobs, the United States is largely blind in the two regions where our interests are most challenged. The situation is as bad or worse in the Intelligence Community and the FBI. And there is not likely to be any improvement soon.

It takes years to learn these languages proficiently, and there are only a trickle of people in the pipeline. They will not be emerging as proficient for several more years. This means that, even if recruitment were ramped up and qualified people were attracted to the State Department (or IC), it would take at least 10 years for their presence to make an impact.

It is intersting to note the GAO comments on the disincentives that exist in the structure to develop specialists. They are similar to the disincentives within the IC, who, like the State Deparment, crave generalists and punish specialists. Specialists cannot spend two consecutive assignments in the same post. Those who spend time and tax payer dollars learning a difficult language are almost sure to be tranferred to an unrelated area with a few years. Junior officers are required to move around to different geographic and linguistic areas in order to qualify for promotions.

There is some logic to this, and it is useful in many of the cases. Well-rounded officers with a variety of skills is a desireable cadre. But in an era when the U.S. if facing the highest level of hostility in its history among wide swaths of the world's population, a long war against Islamists who seek to kill us and the Chinese competiton for resources and economic superiority, the parameters must be shifted.

The limited pool of people who master the languages that those who present our greatest threat, must have career paths that put there valuable and rare skills to maximum advantage. We are flying blind in much of the world, and will continue to do so for a considerable period of time. The system must be changed to make that horizon as short as possible.

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