Language Lessons

A miniflap bubbled up earlier this week when Barack Obama said that the Iraq war was occupying Arabic translators who could otherwise be working in Afghanistan. OK, so he didn’t quite say that, but he almost said it. (Video here .) It was close enough that ABC still called it a “gaffe,” sparking a testy back-and-forth with campaign spokesman Bill Burton.

But there are a couple of other details Obama might want to get straight before the general election. Here’s his full quote:

So we just don’t have enough capacity right now to deal with—and it’s not just troops by the way, it’s like, Arab, uh, Arabic interpreters. Arab language speakers. We only have a certain number of them. And if they’re all in Iraq, then it’s harder for us to use them. And obviously they may not speak Arabic, but the various dialects that they speak in Afghanistan, oftentimes people who speak Urdu or Pashtun or whatever the languages are, they’re going to be needed in those areas. And a lot of them have ended up being placed elsewhere.

In fact, Urdu is the national language of Pakistan but isn’t spoken in Afghanistan, according to the trusty CIA World Factbook . The Obama campaign points to the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan, but it seems clear that’s not what Obama meant by “the various dialects that they speak in Afghanistan.” And Pashtun , which is the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, is not a language. The language is Pashto , sometimes rendered as Pashtu.

Democrats hyperventilated when John McCain appeared to mix up Sunnis and Shiites during his Middle East trip last month. But Obama is considered more vulnerable on foreign policy than McCain is. Slip-ups, however minor, will get interpreted by some as indicators of ignorance or inexperience. Even if Obama’s larger point is valid—that Iraq is sucking resources from other conflicts—it’s the details that may come back to bite him.