The US Budget
Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Johnsen has written for a variety of publications on Yemen including, among others, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, The Independent, The Boston Globe, and The National. He is the co-founder of Waq al-Waq: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen Blog. In 2009, he was a member of the USAID's conflict assessment team for Yemen.
It is a rare day when the US budget, or US domestic politics at all for that matter, is featured on Waq al-waq. But today is that day.
Over at Abu Muqawama, Andrew Exum has a short post arguing that the teaching of languages like Arabic, Farsi and so forth should be considered a national security investment.
Not surprisingly, given my background, I share Exum's concern over this report in Chronicle of Higher Education, which says that the current budget deal will feature cuts to Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs.
More than most I have benefited from these programs. I have held a Fulbright Fellowship to Yemen as well as multiple fellowships from the American Institute for Yemeni Studies (which are funded by the US Government). All of these were instrumental in giving me on-the-ground experience in Yemen as well as the language training that is essential for finding out what is actually happening in the country.
When I returned from Yemen, Title VI grants funded my entire MA at the University of Arizona, as well as one year of my Ph.D. work at Princeton. Currently I'm on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship to Cairo, researching Yemen.
None of this experience would have been possible without these grants.
As someone who has financed my knowledge of Yemen largely at the government's expense, I believe I have a responsibility to give my opinion to the US government when asked. This means that when Congress asks me to testify I make it a priority to do so. (The only time I have declined is when I was out of the country and unable to return to the US).
I am also often called on to give advice or my opinion to different branches of the government, again I do so on the belief that the US government benefits from hearing many different sides and that as someone who has received US money I have an obligation to voice my honest opinion when asked.
I understand the hesitancy to classify these programs as "national security" ones and put them under the Defense Department. I too, believe that would be a mistake. But it would be just as serious of a mistake to cut them. Yes, many of the scholars and students who receive this money do not directly study issues related to US national security. But none of us know what issues will be important for US national security in the future and which ones won't.
There is no road map for discovery, and giving scholars the freedom to select their research topics means that the US has a well of wisdom on which to draw when it needs to. Often times scholars and students are the only ones studying a particular field simply because that field is not a priority for the government at the moment and consequently it is not seriously studied by DC think tanks.
For example, when I was writing about al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2006 and 2007 I was one of the few people doing so, largely because Washington, the think tanks, and most other resources were being directed towards Iraq. That was not where my interests were, and it was only the existence of Title VI and Fulbright money that allowed me to focus on Yemen.
Al-Qaeda in Yemen and its successor group AQAP, of course, have since become very important to US national security.
I mention all of this only to say that none of the knowledge or expertise I have on Yemen would have been possible without the funding and support of programs like Title VI and the Fulbright-Hays. To cut these programs at this time, albeit one in which serious financial sacrifices are needed, seems to me a foolish mistake. Comparatively speaking, the programs are inexpensive and financing them and the knowledge they produce now may well save the US government much more in the future. The programs are an investment, insurance for the future. Of course, there are always arguments for doing away with insurance when the sun is shining and the funds are tight, but when the rains come it is sure nice to have it.
This isn't an easy argument for a politician to make, nor is it the sexy one. But it is the right one.
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