Reporter Jeff Stein of Congressional Quarterly reveals in an NYT op-ed that many of the Bush Administration officials and Congressional committee chairmen he's interviewed are extremely hazy on the differences between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
This is part of a more general bit of bad luck plaguing our Middle Eastern adventures: the spelling similarities of the two most important pairs of words for grasping the basic realities of that part of the world. Americans can't readily remember the differences between foreign words that begin with the same letters, and thus we tend to conflate Sunnis and Shi'ites and Iraq and Iran more than we would if we had to deal with, say, Junnis and Yi'ites and Araq and Uran. Intelligent imperial policy always makes use of the divide-and-rule ploy, but when many Americans can't recall that Iraq didn't take the American embassy hostage in 1979, we're headed for big trouble.
Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.
“Do I?” she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. “You know, I should.” She took a stab at it: “It’s a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it’s the Sunnis who’re more radical than the Shia.”
Did she know which branch Al Qaeda’s leaders follow?
“Al Qaeda is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni,” she replied. “I may be wrong, but I think that’s right.”
I'm actually sympathetic to Rep. Davis's confusion over which ones are the radicals, because the conventional wisdom has changed so many times on the subject. As I wrote in July:
Please remind me again: Which ones are the Good Muslims: Shunnis or Si'ites?
For many years after the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981, the American press would authoritatively inform us that there were two kinds of Muslims, the crazy radical bad Shi'ites and the calm traditional good Sunnis. Then some Sunnis blew up the WTC and so we invaded Iraq and the Sunni insurgents kept trying to kill us and the Shi'ites kept winning all the elections that we set up in Iraq, so that meant the Shi'ites were democratic and thus good, because we wouldn't have invaded Iraq just to let the bad kind of Muslims take power, right? But now some Sunnis in Iraq are asking us to stay around to keep the Shi'ite government from killing them and the Shi'ites in Iran elected Amenisaidagain and now the Shi'ites in Lebanon are at war with Israel, while the Sunni dictatorships that we were supposed to be against in 2005 are hinting that it's more or less okay with them if the Israelis whomp on the Shi'ites for a little while, so now I guess the Sunnis are good and the Shi'ites are bad. Or did I get that backwards?
Do we really know what we are doing over there?
And the answer to that question is becoming more obvious. As I wrote in VDARE.com on the fifth anniversary of 9/11:
Whether you're a Pollyanna optimist or a paranoid pessimist, it's still an oddly comforting assumption that somewhere, behind all the nonsensical propaganda, there is somebody smart who is secretly pulling the strings to achieve his goals, whatever they may be.
That there's an Inner Circle comprised of profoundly competent men plotting the course of history is one of the most popular staples of science fiction. In Star Wars, the Jedi Knights battle each other to determine the fate of the galaxy. In Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, psychohistorian Hari Seldon has scientifically grasped what will happen for the next 1,000 years.
The same pattern is found in science fiction by "serious" authors. The climaxes of both famous English mid-century dystopian novels, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, are didactic dialogues in which omniscient and omnipotent Inner Circle representatives proudly explain to the idealistic main characters the sinister logic behind the regime's disinformation...
So—has America's policy since 9/11 been dictated by benevolent Obi-wan Kenobis and Hari Seldons or by evil Mustapha Monds and O'Briens?
"Neither," suggests Gregory Cochran, the physicist and geneticist, who correctly pointed out in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was too broke to have a nuclear bomb program. "There is no Inner Party like in 1984 in our government. They just don't know what they are talking about."
The reality, in Cochran's view, is more like Idiocracy, the new Mike Judge movie.
Does this really matter? Chicago Boyz advises complacency:
Old, Old News
Glenn Reynolds quotes Roger Simon who notes that “People like Reid, Hastert, Pelosi are complete mediocrities” and that “something is fundamentally wrong” that such people are in the upper reaches of government. Reynolds concludes that “Politics is not attracting our best people.”
This has been an accurate complaint since immediately after the Founding generation. But, still, the whole thing worked anyway, and always has.
Lord Bryce, in his classic American Commonwealth (1888), had a famous chapter entitled Why the Best Men do not Go into Politics...
Having mediocre politicians is a consequence of our having a superb private economy. We are, actually, fortunate that we have some relatively competent and public-spirited people in public life at all.
This is not a problem with a solution, but a permanent, structural condition.
Nor is it one that needs to concern us much.
Okay, but in the 1880s when Lord Bryce was writing, America wasn't trying to execute an ambitious, complicated, and dangerous foreign policy. Chester Arthur didn't invade Iraq.
Foreign policy is simply much more complex than domestic policy. The Daleys in Chicago, for example, can understand domestic policy well enough (if LBJ had made Richard J. Daley his domestic policy czar, the country would have been spared a lot of grief), but foreign policy is too complex for "Mayberry Machiavellis." In an administration that's mostly profoundly ignorant of the outside world, pseudo-intellectual fools like Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith wind up with way too much influence.