David Dunford: International education programs secure our place in the world

Like most of you, I have watched with fascination and horror the health-care debate and the investigation into Russian interference in our elections. Little attention is being paid, though, to the damage the president’s proposed budget would do to our ability to manage future foreign policy crises and compete in the international marketplace.

The proposal would eliminate long-standing and effective programs that create a cadre of American citizens who can speak languages other than English and function in different cultures.

All my adult life, more than 50 years, I worked in foreign affairs, including 30 years working in or on the Middle East. We have made some horrendous mistakes, from sending Marines into a Lebanese civil war we didn’t understand in the early 1980s to invading Iraq unprepared for the aftermath in 2003.

As a participant in this unsatisfactory history of intervention, I concluded that we just don’t know enough about the peoples and cultures outside of North America. Ignorance has proven to be dangerous and the danger will only grow.

I respect the people and capabilities of our military and share the frustration of our military leaders that civilian agencies cannot recruit enough Americans schooled in the languages and cultures of places where they operate, like Iraq and Afghanistan.

After World War II, congressional leaders saw the need to encourage more Americans to acquire language and other global skills to build international understanding and better protect U.S. interests. Since the Eisenhower administration, the Department of Education has supported international education programs. Current annual funding for these programs is slightly more than $72 million, significantly less than the cost of a single F-22 aircraft. We have spent trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The president’s budget for fiscal year 2018 requests no funds for these programs, asserting that they are not consistent with the Department of Education’s core mission. This would be the death knell for scores of national resource centers located at universities throughout the country, including the Center for Middle Eastern Studies right here at the University of Arizona.

Since retiring from the Foreign Service, I have taught hundreds of undergraduate men and women, many of whom (not all) have come away excited about working in the international arena and looking for advice on careers. I point them to Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships, financed by the Department of Education but awarded by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. For those in an ROTC program, there is a Defense Department program to fund critical language training called Project GO.

These programs allow qualified students to study critical languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Persian or Turkish either in universities in the United States or in countries where those languages are spoken. Many students of mine have gone on to military careers or to work for foreign affairs agencies. They are making a difference, but we still lack sufficient language and cultural skills to succeed in the international arena.

When I was in Iraq in 2003 working to restore Iraqi institutions after our invasion, maybe a dozen of us had experience in the Arab world and only half that number were fluent in Arabic. That didn’t completely explain our failure, but it certainly put success out of reach.

We cannot be safe in a dangerous world if we have no language and cultural competence. Our NATO allies as well as potential adversaries like Russia and China understand the need. Eliminating international education programs in this country would be both dangerous and irresponsible.

David Dunford is a retired U.S. ambassador who lives, writes and teaches in Tucson.

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