Dangerous Ignorance

Jeff Stein makes an alarming revelation in the New York Times: most counterterrorism officials and Congress members to whom he's spoken don't know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite.

For the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?"

A "gotcha" question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it's out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I'm not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who's on what side today, and what does each want?

...But so far, most American officials I've interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?
As Stein correctly notes, it would have been incredible for British counterterrorism officials dealing with Northern Ireland not to know the difference between Catholics and Protestants. And yet one of the fundamental differences driving the civil war in Iraq, and delineating disparate interests between, for example, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, are not understood by many of our counterterrorism officials—and members of Congress in key positions relating to intelligence and defense.

Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

"Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" I asked him a few weeks ago.

Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: "One's in one location, another's in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don't know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something."

To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. "Now that you’ve explained it to me," he replied, "what occurs to me is that it makes what we're doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area."
Gee, ya think?

As Tristero at Hullabaloo notes: "Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when the sound of the military airplanes patrolling the skies of Manhattan were still traumatizing everyone, I picked up some books on bin Laden, the Middle East, and Islam. I also peppered with questions the few people I knew back then who had some expertise on the subjects. In fact, lots of people I knew were doing the same thing; we were passing around books, articles, and clippings, emailing links to each other. This strikes me as totally unremarkable behavior." It strikes me the same way. And, beyond what one would expect in terms of self-education in such a situation, I'm frankly amazed that there was apparently no instruction provided (no less made compulsory) for officials and members of Congress tasked with making decisions predicated on this very basic knowledge. No one's heard of Power Point in D.C.?

It's astounding. And I daresay it confirms many of the worst fears about Americans that even our leadership seems to be operating from a place of such arrogance that they don't feel obliged to understand the people we fight, nor the people we purport to help.

(Crossposted at AlterNet PEEK.)

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