The US and Terrorism: Use Your Head, America!

Out of 35,000 State Department employees, fewer than ten are fluent in Arabic. This is simply incredible. And that is not the only impediment preventing the US from fighting terror successfully.

Fred Skolnik

OpEds Fred Skolnik
Fred Skolnik

The debate about how the United States should combat global terrorism and insurgency is in effect a debate about how the United States should act in a world it does not understand. When such a debate is conducted at the level of the media, it is pointless. When such a debate is conducted at the level of government, it is dangerous. The results, for the United States, have thus far been Iraq and, before that, Vietnam.

America's stumbling block since World War II has been irregular warfare. To defeat Germany and Japan it was enough to understand the art of war. To defeat terrorists and insurgents you have to understand entire cultures. This the United States has never been able to do, and certainly not the language, religion, politics and history of the Muslim East.

Though the United States has had at least 20 years to understand that the next world threat, replacing the Soviet Union, I suppose, was going to be Muslim fanaticism, it has done nothing to prepare for it. I mean to say that the United States has done nothing to develop a military and political doctrine suitable for fighting terrorism and insurgency, or developed a cadre of Arabic speakers who understand the Muslim world, which is the basis for developing such a doctrine.

It is by now a notorious fact that out of 35,000 State Department employees, fewer than ten are fluent in Arabic. This is simply incredible, for just as the American news organizations find it perfectly acceptable to have correspondents who do not speak Arabic "reporting" from the Middle East, and analysts and even "experts" who do not speak Arabic "analyzing" these reports, such being the standards by which their journalists operate, so too the American intelligence community gathers its information with the aid of "interpreters" who as often as not speak pidgin English and then has this information worked up into intelligence reports by officials who also do not understand Arabic, not to mention Hebrew, and finally passes these reports on to the American president and the officials who surround him, who are as capable of understanding the culture of the Middle East as grade school children.

The ignorance of American officials is reflected in such guileless statements as Obama's confession that he had "underrated" the difficulty of reviving negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which creates the illusion that some understandable misreading of the situation had led to a raising of expectations, whereas in actual fact the American reading of the Middle East transpires in total darkness (as is the case with its reading of events in Libya and Egypt, where the only real alternatives to the old tyranny are chaos or tyranny of a different kind).

Ignorance, it must be said, is just one of the impediments to fighting terrorism and insurgency. Another is the perpetuation of the myth that the American fighting man is the best in the world. The truth is that Muslim insurgents, in training, motivation, discipline and fighting ability, are the equals of the American soldier, and when fighting is on their terms and on their ground, the advantage is always theirs, no matter how many bombs are dropped on their heads. Israeli officers have actually rated Hizbollah fighters higher than Israeli soldiers in just these qualities. When American thinking is conditioned by Hollywood films and gung-ho journalism, and it most certainly is in that these have created the frame of mind in which Americans see the world, then the results are bound to be disastrous, just as they were in Iraq and Vietnam.

The question of doctrine, however, is also problematic in itself. In conventional warfare, military thinking can lag behind technological innovation by a full generation. Though the rifled musket was in overwhelming use by the middle of the American Civil War, increasing the effective range of small arms fire from 100 to 300-500 yards, generals continued to order Napoleonic infantry charges not only to the very end of the Civil War but throughout World War I as well (and hence 60,000 British casualties on the first day of their offensive on the Somme and a million casualties on both sides in the space of four and a half months). Irregular warfare is just this kind of innovation.

The depth of the problem is best exemplified by the case of Israel, which has made little headway against Hizbullah and Hamas though its experience, knowledge and capabilities in this kind of conflict exceed those of the United States by many fold.

It is therefore time to look the problem squarely in the face and prepare for a future whose horrors cannot even be imagined. The world certainly needs a policeman. The natural candidate would be the United Nations, but unfortunately all too many of its members are criminals themselves. This leaves the United States, by default, but to be a policeman it will have to learn how to use the tools of the trade.

This it has not even begun to do. Use your head, America!