WASHINGTON -- As foreign fighters stream into Syria and Iraq to bolster the Islamic State, some congressmen are concerned that the State Department's effort to halt that flow faces a serious language barrier.
During Tuesday morning's House Foreign Affairs joint subcommittee hearing on "ISIS and the Threat From Foreign Fighters," two lawmakers questioned the qualifications of a U.S. official handling that aspect of the crisis in Syria.
"Do you speak Arabic?" Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) asked Robert Bradtke, who serves as the State Department's senior adviser for partner engagement on Syria foreign fighters.
"I do not speak Arabic," Bradtke responded.
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"Do you have any expertise in the Arab world? Did you ever serve?" Connolly followed.
Bradtke, a 40-year State Department veteran, said the Middle East was not his "primary expertise" but noted his extensive diplomatic travel experience.
"But you were never assigned to the region?" Connolly closed.
"No, I was not assigned to the region," Bradtke said.
Back in March, Bradtke was called out of retirement to serve as the lead U.S. diplomat on the foreign fighter issue. His job is "engaging foreign partners to prevent and interdict foreign extremist travel to Syria," a spokesperson told Reuters in May.
But should that task have gone to someone who (a) knows Arabic or (b) has significant experience in the Middle East? Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said at the hearing that the State Department lacks the needed diversity of expertise, adding that he has prodded the government for nearly a year to hire more scholars with these skills.
"It is about time that the State Department hire its first Islamic legal expert to work full time on that, maybe a couple," Sherman said. "It's time that at least somebody be hired at the State Department not because they went to a fancy American school or because they did well on the Foreign Service exam."
Bradtke testified that he was appointed to the ISIS job because of his ability to work with a wide swath of countries and officials. Besides his service as ambassador to Croatia, his State Department biography notes time as executive assistant to then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher, as well as fluency in French, German, Russian, Italian and Croatian.
"I don't think the fact that I don't speak Arabic has been a hindrance," Bradtke said, citing successful meetings he has had with Islamic leaders around the globe about steps their countries can take to deter the Islamic State's growth.
Connolly also asked if foreign militants attracted to the Islamic State's cause come from Arab countries. Bradtke said that many do.
Without disparaging Bradtke's service, Connolly supported Sherman's point that the State Department needs to bring along more officials with Middle East experience.
"This region is unraveling," Connolly said. "It is a long-term challenge, if not threat, to us and to the West. It is profoundly disturbing what is happening, and we have to have expertise in the region."
For more on the hearing, read here.