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A Nation of No-Nothings : America's Willful Ignorance of the World Puts Us at Peril

December 02, 1990|Stanley Meisler | Stanely Meisler is a longtime foreign correspondent for The Times. He is currently based in Barcelona

THE HANDSOME, ELEGANT WOMAN IN AN ORANGE SUIT and bright scarf fields a flurry of questions from the State Department press corps with the aplomb and wit of a political pro. Her boss, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, lost his cool the day before this press conference and bared to Congress his resentment of Israel's foot-dragging on peace negotiations. He sarcastically spouted out the telephone number of the White House and proclaimed to the Israelis: "When you're serious about peace, call us." Now, the first questions, three dozen of them, focus on this rather undiplomatic though telling remark.

The incident has all the earmarks of a political flap, but Margaret DeBardeleben Tutwiler knows how to deal with those. Baker brought the 39-year-old University of Alabama graduate and GOP activist with him to the White House during the Reagan Administration as a key deputy. She then served with him in the Department of Treasury and now, under Bush, as assistant secretary of state for public affairs. She is chief spokesman for the department and, by all accounts, chief political adviser to Baker.

There is an amused sparkle to her light-blue eyes as she takes on the questions. She wants to draw just a bit of the sting out of Baker's words by pretending that he was chiding both the Arabs and Israelis, not just the Israelis. She hums a patter of mm-hmms as she listens to questions, to show reporters that she follows the logic of their questions. "Correct," she pronounces one question. "Wrong," she snaps at another. She doesn't hesitate telling reporters what she believes Baker was trying to say. "There were no surprises in what he said," she explains. "I've read the text. I know what his thinking was, what his intention was."

"Let me ask the question a different way, Margaret," a reporter says.

"You're going to get the same answer," she parries.

Then the subject shifts to Algeria. Algeria, unlike Israel, is not a domestic political issue. Algeria is an issue of foreign policy, pure and simple. Listening to a question on Algeria, Tutwiler has no ready answer. She hesitates, flips through her briefing book and searches. She then finds and reads a long paragraph of State Department policy on the recent elections in the North African country. She reads well enough in her slight Alabama accent, sounding a little like an old-fashioned high school elocution pupil. But when a reporter fires a second question at her about Algeria, Tutwiler has no more than a stiff, stock reply. "Beyond the comment that we have made," she says coldly, "I do not have a further comment for you on the Algerian election."

Tutwiler, whose job is to interpret Baker's words and actions, does not like to answer questions about foreign policy. The subject seems to tie her tongue. This assistant secretary of state, after all, has no background in foreign affairs. That lack does not necessarily impede Tutwiler in her job. "For my work," says David Ensor, who covers the State Department for ABC News, "I would rather have someone who knows the mind of Baker than someone who knows what is going on in Algeria."

Yet the contrast between Tutwiler and her counterparts in other countries is breathtaking. No other leading industrial nation has a foreign-policy spokesman who knows so little about the rest of the world. It is beyond imagination to conceive of someone like Tutwiler serving as spokeswoman for the foreign ministries of Britain, France, Canada or the Soviet Union.

Yet Margaret Tutwiler's weak grounding in foreign policy is not so amazing. A background in foreign studies is not prized in the United States. We do not expect our educated people to speak a foreign language or know much more about other lands than a tourist would. Tutwiler reflects an American reality--a dispiriting and dangerous reality. Most Americans are ignorant of the rest of the world, utterly oblivious to the nuances of foreign politics and events. Only a society so benighted would allow a foreign policy spokeswoman just as oblivious.

DESPITE A half-century of leadership of the Free World, the United States is still the most provincial industrialized power on earth. This ignorance reveals itself on many levels. Our business representatives are finding it increasingly difficult to compete in markets they don't understand. Our decision and policy-makers, who understand little of the cultural and historical forces that shape world events, are constantly putting out fires, rather than preventing them.

But this parochialism begins at the individual level: Most of us speak only one language, English; not surprising considering the Congress' bull-headed refusal to fund foreign-related studies. It's a vicious circle--public ignorance feeds maladroitness in government, which in turn perpetuates public ignorance.

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