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View Diary: Idiocy at the State Department (85 comments)

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  •  Language is part of the problem. But it's larger. (7+ / 0-)

    Dreidlgirl, speaking as the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer, says that her husband is fluent in the local language as are many of the post staff. She points out some valid issues on why diplomats might speak in English: locals may want to practice their English. In a multi-lingual country, speaking in one of the languages may come across as choosing sides. And, of course, staff rotate and may not have time to come up to speed. These are valid points.

    But for those of us who have followed State Department actions in depth and have listened to press conferences and Wikileaked cables, not to mention followed the denouement of events over the course of decades, Inoljt's point about the lack of linguistic proficiency is valid. I think, though, that it's part of a larger problem.

    All countries are diverse. Our foreign policy generally involves making common cause with the faction in the country that likes us. That tends to be the westernized elite. These are the people who are most likely to favor the laissez faire capitalist relations that U.S. business favors. They tend to be wealthier than average. They are more often than not Christian rather than of other religions. And, being international in perspective, they often speak English.

    The net result is that the people we talk to are the most like us--and they're often a minority of people in the country. To the extent that diplomats are not linguistically proficient, they're not hearing other points of view. One can cite case after case where we supported vicious dictators because they said things we wanted to hear. Are we proud of what we did to Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, Diem in Vietnam, or Aristide in Haiti? Do we think that our actions in those cases helped our cause in the long run?

    I have diaried in depth on the coups in Honduras, Haiti, and Venezuela, and on US involvement in the butchery in Guatemala in the 1980s. I have read countless State Department cables, listened to their official explanations of what happened, read press accounts/blogs from all sides, reviewed releases from the NSArchive at GWU, and so on.

    After all that, I agree with Inoljt that there is idiocy at the State Department, that not all of that idiocy can be based on the policy-making branches (White House and Congress), and that part of the problem is that State Department personnel are not listening to people--especially non English-speaking people--in the countries in which they serve. They may be a hell of a lot more proficient than the average American, but that's a very, very, very low bar.

    •  They may listen to local languages (1+ / 0-)
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      even if they aren't making their presentation in a local language.

      Even if the ambassador or diplomat making the presentation isn't fluent, they likely have some staff that is, or at minimum, have translators.

      They may miss things, and as you point out there are examples where this likely has occurred, but I'm sure there is at least an attempt to understand local issues, including what's said and written in local languages.  I know we rely heavily on interpreters in many of the countries where we have a presence. It would of course be better if all staff were fluent, but with rotating assignments, and the need to move diplomats to hot spots, that's not always possible.

      •  It's not missing a few issues, Gary (2+ / 0-)
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        Orinoco, Roadbed Guy

        It's forming a perspective that is, basically, delusional, based on contacts that they have which are shaped by factors such as the some of the functions they perform (e.g., intelligence gathering, e.g., greasing business connections) and who they are able to talk to.

        Sometimes the worst witnesses are eyewitnesses. They were there. They're sure they know the truth. But patient forensics proves that they were wrong. History is the forensics of international politics. Much of the history of US diplomacy is not flattering.

        •  There are certainly examples of that, (0+ / 0-)

          from propping up "friendly" governments, to supplying weapons and training to those who later turned against us (we assisted what became the Tailban during the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan),  to relying on intelligence sources who tell us what we want to hear (e.g. Rafid Alwan, "curveball", who supplied the Bush administration with evidence of Iraqi WMD, but may have had ulterior motives).

          But the State Department does spend considerable resources through its Foreign Service Institute to train its personnel in the languages where it operates.  Despite this though it does also rely on translators.

          •  Many of those biggest blunders (1+ / 0-)
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            in foreign policy are actually the result of decisions made at the highest levels of government, i.e. in the political process.

            •  I agree that State cannot be blamed for policy (2+ / 0-)
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              Orinoco, IreGyre

              State does not set policy. That's established by Congress and the White House. State does not overthrow governments.

              But, as I learned most acutely in analyzing the Honduran coup, State is responsible for critical intelligence, communications, and framing of issues. For example, the fact that the Ambassadors to Honduras during the presidency of Manuel Zelaya were extreme anti-communists ended up with State mis-framing the issue as communism vs. capitalism. That was not what was going on.

              Also, State was aware of the coup ahead of time, but did not communicate to the plotters that extralegal action would result in a cutoff of aid to Honduras. State then failed to cut off aid as American law requires, for which Hillary Clinton bears direct responsibility (since aid was flowing through the MDC, which she headed). And most flagrantly, the US sent as its negotiator to the OAS an apologist for the Guatemalan dictatorship, a thuggish man by the name of Lew Amselem.

              The loss of U.S. influence in Latin America from this one incident was enormous. Honduras has declined into being a narco state, and the situation continues to spiral down. Even though State does not set policy, it could have prevented this outcome.

        •  But it is fundamentally their job (1+ / 0-)
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          to talk to people who are the current movers and shakers in those countries.

          It is the job (or should be) of CIA operatives to get out into the street, talk to the workers and organizers and activists and students and street gangs and religious cults to find out what the hell is really going on that the elites our diplomats are forever talking to either don't know, discount, or don't tell them.

          Much of our US diplomacy is not flattering because much of our foreign policy is not flattering. When your policy is to let your corporations steal resources from other countries then you are going to have a lot of stuff you aren't proud of.

          "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

          by Orinoco on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 12:43:44 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Who says so? (1+ / 0-)
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            Obviously it's important for diplomats to talk to movers and shakers. But just them?  It's also important to talk to other people.

            If an alien came to earth and asked the U.S. Congress what was going on in America, he'd learn that the U.S. is being run by a Kenyan Muslim socialist and that the principal function of government is to ensure that everyone has a gun. He'd do well to ask elsewhere.

            The movers and shakers in Honduras, to take one example, include oligarchs who have used death squads, run narcotics, and operate sweatshops. One would learn much more about the situation in the country by talking to an illiterate Garifuna fisherman than by spending many hours talking to the elite.

            The CIA and State are deeply integrated. That's problematic, because human rights monitors, labor rights monitors, and others with important information that the US ought to be listening to may hesitate to talk to the embassy for fear that it will get back to the police/military.

            •  But is an illiterate Garifuna fisherman (0+ / 0-)

              going to talk to someone from a foreign embassy? Or would he be more likely to open up to someone who looks and talks like him and hangs out at the local watering hole. Especially knowing that, to take your Honduran example, the elite is running death squads. Sending diplomats off to talk to folks on the waterfront won't tell them anything. Sending CIA agents to recruit local folks might work a whole lot better.

              And the CIA and State should be deeply integrated. CIA should constantly be whispering in State's ear, "here's what's really going on..." based on actual on the ground intelligence garnered from places other than elite diplomatic cocktail parties.

              It's the CIA, not the State Department, who is supposed to be collecting handouts activists pass out in the crowd of unemployed locals, who is buying and reading local language newspapers and magazines, who has a network of people sitting in union meetings, student meetings, neighborhood meetings, bars, barber shops and pool halls, listening and reporting on what is happening. That's what intelligence is supposed to be about. It's related to diplomacy, but it is not diplomacy. And diplomacy isn't intelligence gathering.

              "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

              by Orinoco on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 11:00:36 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  You'd be surprised (0+ / 0-)

                There are people in the human rights groups who would be incredibly grateful for the chance to speak with embassy staff genuinely willing to listen. In Honduras, many of those in the human rights groups are gente humilde-- poor people, indigenous people, people who know what it's like to be shot by DEA agents for the crime of coming home in the evening.

                As for intelligence gathering, you might be surprised where it comes from.  

        •  Interestingly, the same delusional perspective (2+ / 0-)
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          CharlesII, IreGyre

          has been recognized as an established phenomenon in academic research - where the predominant findings have come from studies on WEIRD individuals/research subjects.

          an oddly appropriate acronym, it turns out

    •  I'm not disagreeing with you (1+ / 0-)
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      about our horrid interventions around the world. Some blame can be placed on the structure of the State Department (and their are many career hacks) but most of this is due to the ideology of the administration being served. Language fluency will not necessarily preclude evil acts, though I believe it can humanize. Really Charles II, the foreign service folks in Latin America do speak exemplary Spanish. Some of them are spying, obviously. How their work is used ---today, and not just 30 years ago--- is the political issue.

      •  You might be interested in this GAO Report (2+ / 0-)
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        IreGyre, anana

        Comprehensive Plan Needed to Address Persistent Foreign Language Shortfalls.:

        As of October 31, 2008, 31 percent of Foreign Service officers in overseas language-designated positions (LDP) did not meet both the foreign languages speaking and reading proficiency requirements for their positions.
        While the problem is worst in the Eastern hemisphere and least severe in the Western hemisphere, 20% of LatAm personnel who should be language proficient are not. And, it should be noted, 55% of Foreign Service overseas positions don't require any language skills!  

        So, sure, many people speak the local language. Many are good, dedicated public servants. I think the larger problem is cultural outlook.

        •  Uf, you're right, that's not good (0+ / 0-)

          Cultural outlook is a good way to put it. It keeps amazing me that universities and secondary schools have no foreign language requirements, or very feeble programs for fulfilling language requirements ---it's about our pinche insularity.

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