Max Boot actually makes the right, if obvious, point that we need more trained linguists in the government and in the military.  How far away is the goal?  Pretty far:

We won’t close our knowledge gap until a Foreign Area Officer—an officer who has dedicated much of his career to understanding a particular region—gets at least as much respect within his service as a tank commander or fighter pilot.

If we were speculating about why “we haven’t launched a crash program to teach thousands of young people Near Eastern languages” (Dari, Pashto and Urdu aren’t really Near Eastern*, but we’ll let that go this time), a few answers present themselves. 

One is that the administration has remained in many ways so tied to the earlier “liberation” approach that it does not think there is a real need to teach Americans these languages.  Why go to the trouble to learn Dari or Pashto, when Afghans are glorying in democratic freedom and don’t need us to talk to them?  This would be a result of the contradictory impulse to dominate a region as hegemonists, but to insist all the time that there is no hint of colonialism at work.  You probably don’t teach a lot of people to learn these languages unless you see your involvement in the relevant countries being very long-term.  So perhaps no one is preparing for the “Long War,” because they don’t think the war will actually be all that long (or perhaps they hope to project power via bases, but avoid local entanglements as much as possible).  Perhaps they still expect, in spite of everything, for the local people to figure out alien systems of government, effective administration and establish some reasonable level of order and security without much in the way of assistance and advice (except as can be given in English to prominent exiles or those among the locals who can speak English).  However, this seems a less likely answer.

Another possibile answer for the lack of extensive language training programs is simply that the administration is filled with officials either so contemptuous of the rest of the world or so ignorant of much of it that they do not appreciate the importance of having an expanded corps of linguists in these languages.  Mr. Bush is famously intellectually incurious, so the initiative wouldn’t come from him.  One can almost imagine him saying to Secretary Rice, “Why can’t all those people just speak English?”  Secretary Rice would seem at first like the better candidate to push for improving language training, at least as far as her responsibility at State goes, but she is famously not a Near or Middle Eastern expert and might not have given a lot of thought to the variety and range of different languages that need to be sponsored to support operations across these regions.  You would think a Robert Gates (no stranger to collaborating with foreign rebels is he) would press for this more.  Perhaps he has privately tried and run up against the uncomprehending, baffled looks of other members of the administration?

The third answer is simply that of incompetence: everyone in the administration knows how important this is, they really want to take it seriously, but haven’t much sense of how to go about training a lot more linguists.  Unfortunately, given the track record of this administration, this seems the most likely explanation, as attractive as the other two might seem. 

Reporters have had fun quizzing top officials on the differences between Islamic sects and the affiliation of relevant jihadis, showing in the process that many of the top people in relevant areas of policy and oversight have no idea what goes on “over there.”  I think they should go back and corner top officials on these language questions.  Corner the heads of Senate Foreign Relations or House Armed Services.  “Mr. Chairman, what are the major languages that they speak in Afghanistan?”  If one gets even one of them right, ask: “What kind of a language is that?  What other languages is it related to?  Which groups speak that language?”  And so on.  This would be very elementary, but it might just embarrass enough prominent people that they would feel the need to make more of an effort in boosting these language training programs. 

I like foreign languages.  While I am probably too much of dilettante and not really good enough at many of the languages I have worked on, I would like to think that I know something about their value and importance, not simply for the immediate purpose of communication, but for understanding how other peoples around the world think and understanding what other peoples think is important.  The apparent initial indifference of the government to this matter, and its sluggish response up till this point, is just one more indictment against the competence of the administration and the entire apparatus of the federal government.

*I have typically referred distinctly to the Near East and the Middle East as different regions, because they are different regions.  This follows an older, European categorisation of the Orient into Near, Middle and Far.  This is reflected in many modern European languages: the Near Eastern region is still described as der naehen Osten, le Proche Orient, etc.  For whatever reason, Americans collapsed the Near and Middle East together, so that we are treated to the bizarre descriptions of places in the Levant as being “Middle Eastern” and frequent references to Israel-Palestine negotiations as pursuit of “peace in the Middle East.”  Perhaps Americans call the Near East the Middle East because some of us already regard Europe as the “Near East”?  Who knows? 

It has become so widespread and conventional that it is a bit hopeless to try to change the usage, but Boot’s usage above is doubly odd, since it conflates everything in the opposite direction and makes everything–including languages found principally in Pakistan and India–”Near Eastern,” which is no more correct than the other confusion.  It seems to me that the logical point dividing the two would be somewhere between modern Iran and Pakistan.  Arguably, Iran might be classed as part of the Middle East instead, except that I believe Oriental Studies has usually taken Persia to be Near Eastern.  Yes, there is a certain arbitrariness in drawing the line, but for the sake of geographical accuracy it does need to be drawn somewhere.