Writing in The American Conservative, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi strongly criticizes the “cultural ignorance” hampering US foreign policy and security agencies. Rotating assignments and an obsession with leakers and “insider threats” that discourages hiring first or second-generation Americans with foreign language and cultural skills have left American foreign policy, Giraldi writes, bereft of local knowledge and an understanding of alien societies. While American-born practitioners with deep local knowledge do exist “they are largely absent from government,” and counterproductively “organizations like the Foreign Service and the Central Intelligence Agency have a deep institutional prejudice against their employees ‘going native,’ rotating officers every two or three years to avoid someone’s becoming too identified with local interests and cultures.”
Giraldi’s argument is reminiscent of Rory Stewart’s essay “The Plane to Kabul” in the book Can Intervention Work?, co-written with Gerald Knaus. In the essay Steward, like Giraldi, argues that Western governments are unable to effectively carry out state-building and counterinsurgency missions because they lack the number of dedicated specialists necessary to truly understand the cultures these missions operate within. Steward even draws the same comparison to British Imperial administration as Giraldi; as both note, British colonial administrators were, in Giraldi’s words “expected to go out to foreign posts for extended periods, to learn the local language, and to acquire an understanding of the indigenous culture.” Today, this is not the case. As Steward extensively argues, few administrators involved in the multinational mission in Afghanistan can match the local knowledge British colonial officials once commanded. Casualty aversion restricts aid workers, diplomats, and administrators’ ability to travel through Afghanistan and meaningfully interact with locals, and few practitioners are fluent in Afghanistan’s languages. Unlike the British colonial administrators who would spend their entire career in the colonies, today’s practitioners in Afghanistan typically spend little time in the country and rotate out frequently, creating a “lack of continuity” that, quoting Stewart, makes political work difficult “because it stopped the development of trusting relationships with Afghan leaders.”
Both Giraldi and Stewart stress that many US governmental agencies and Western NGOs minimize the career value of acquiring regionally-specific knowledge and languages. The consulting culture embraced by both American governmental agencies and development NGOs, Stewart argues, emphasizes universal principles like conflict resolution, developmental economics, or public administration rather than specific knowledge grounded in local realities. Similarly, Giraldi notes that the CIA officers often do not possess advanced language and cultural skills due to the likelihood that they will soon be tasked with work on another region. “Senior Agency officers, who are disproportionately minimally language capable, generally excuse themselves by arguing ‘an op is an op is an op,’ meaning that spying is not culture specific.” But while this institutional generalist focus might be counterproductive, it is also somewhat understandable: individual practitioners and the organizations they work for have an incentive to stress universal skills that remain in demand when attention moves on from one crisis region to another.
In a reaction to Stewart’s essay, I challenged the idea that the lack of local knowledge Stewart rightly sees as hampering the effort in Afghanistan can be remedied by future “smart” interventions benchmarked around preexisting country-specific knowledge. The British colonial administrators both Stewart and Giraldi approvingly cite could commit themselves to acquiring a career’s worth of local knowledge because they had good reason to believe that the British Empire, and perhaps more importantly the job they’d spent decades training for, would exist by the end of their career. This logic is no longer the case. Indeed, the modern strain of liberal intervention is explicitly benchmarked around the idea that crisis areas can be stabilized by the application of military force and subsequent state-building efforts, again explicitly establishing that, if successful, intervention does not create permanent employment for specialists. Of course, this does not mean that there will not always be a need for dedicated regional specialists — but successfully prosecuting limited-term military interventions obviously requires a temporarily larger cadre of these specialists. There’s simply no way to avoid this surge problem in anything but the most-limited military interventions. While Arabic is a major global language and the Middle East will remain a focus for American foreign policy, there is already a perception among career-minded students that learning Arabic is no longer as useful as it was a decade ago.
Given the time horizon inherent in liberal interventionism, military officers, State Department staffers, and NGO workers have less incentive to heavily invest themselves in acquiring the local skills that will be in less demand in the future. While acquiring these skills will not hurt young practitioners’ future prospects per se, they do carry heavy opportunity costs. Unless an individual practitioner or organization is very dedicated to a specific region, and can count on being promoted on that dedication, it is better to invest in more universal skills without a built-in shelf life — those that justify the believe that ‘an op is an op is an op.’
The problem is that there is no obvious means of addressing the institutional cultural ignorance that both Giraldi and Stewart detail. Of course, Giraldi’s smaller-scale focus on the lack of local skills within American intelligence agencies and the Foreign Service can be in part remedied by focusing less on insider threats and overcoming the so-called institutional prejudice against “going native”. But as long as the American government is tasked with operating in nearly all world regions, it will have trouble finding enough specialists to support ramping up intelligence, military, or even development activity in any given one. Even if practitioners within intelligence agencies or — no less importantly — the wider foreign policy industry are not rotated from specialization to specialization, in-demand regions will shift. Again, it isn’t unreasonable to suspect that the US foreign policy establishment will require less Arabic speakers in the future than in the 2000s, and people make decisions about which skills to acquire based on these expectations.
The problem isn’t only that bureaucratic disincentives make it difficult for organizations to acquire the locally-knowledgable practitioners necessary for state-building or counterinsurgency to work. Stewart stresses that decisions in favor of military interventions should be based on “detailed, country-specific arguments” that do or do not suggest that a successful intervention is possible. But while military interventions may be wars of choice, their locations are not. The United States did not choose to strike Afghanistan in 2001; it was forced to take action by an unprovoked and largely unpredictable attack. While it was not forced to embark on a state-building mission or even to invade Afghanistan, again it is not clear that this was a really a choice at all — as many have noted, the United States cannot realistically smash foreign government and then entirely absolve itself of the unpleasant consequences. While other examples of military interventions may be less dramatic and less costly, the same logic applies. France may have lobbied for military action in Libya and later Mali, but it did not “choose” the events that prompted calls to intervene. This inherent uncertainty about where calls for military interventions will occur makes it difficult to preserve the deep institutional bench of country specialists required to wisely implement policy — and “smart” strategies that rely on their availability problematic. Even when potential crises are suspected, this knowledge is often not enough to prompt bureaucracies to foster the relevant language and cultural skills: as I previously relayed, while the UK knew through the 1970s that Argentina aspired to take the Falkland Islands (though they did not deem it likely), during the war British forces included very few Spanish speakers.
Of course the decision to militarily intervene should be based on specific local knowledge, and an honest assessment about whether military and civil organizations can acquire skilled practitioners quickly enough and in sufficient quantities to be effective. But given the bureaucratic barriers to maintaining a deep bench of specialized practitioners, many potential intervention efforts will not be able to leverage the human capital effectively prosecuting them requires.
Update: Edited for clarity.