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Flunking Our Future

by Mau­reen Dowd
THE NEW YORK TIMES

The only sects that may be more sav­age than Shi­ites and Sun­nis are the Demo­c­ra­t­ic fem­i­nist law­mak­ers rep­re­sent­ing North­ern and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

After Nan­cy Pelosi and Jane Har­man had their final cat­fight about who would lead the House Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, apt­ly enough at the Four Sea­sons’ hair salon in George­town, the new speak­er passed over the knowl­edge­able and cam­era-eager Ms. Har­man and mys­ti­fy­ing­ly gave the con­se­quen­tial job to Sylvestre Reyes of Texas.

Mr. Reyes prompt­ly tripped over the most crit­i­cal theme in the field of intel­li­gence. Jeff Stein, inter­view­ing the incom­ing chair­man for Con­gres­sion­al Quar­ter­ly, asked him whether Al Qae­da was Sun­ni or Shi­ite.

“Pre­dom­i­nant­ly — prob­a­bly Shi­ite,” the law­mak­er guessed.

As Mr. Stein cor­rect­ed him in the arti­cle: “Al Qae­da is pro­found­ly Sun­ni. If a Shi­ite showed up at an Al Qae­da club­house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soc­cer ball.”

Mr. Stein fol­lowed up with a Hezbol­lah ques­tion: “What are they?” Again, Mr. Reyes was stumped.

“Hezbol­lah,” he stam­mered. “Uh, Hezbol­lah. Why do you ask me these ques­tions at 5 o’clock? Can I answer in Span­ish?” (O.K. ¿Qué es Hezbol­lah?)

Sound­ing as naked of essen­tials as Brit­ney Spears, the new intel­li­gence over­sight chief plead­ed that it was hard to keep all the cat­e­gories straight. Thank heav­ens Mr. Stein nev­er got to Syr­i­an Alaw­ites.

Many Amer­i­cans, includ­ing those in charge of Mid­dle East pol­i­cy, are befud­dled and fed up with the intran­si­gent trib­al and reli­gious fevers of the region. As Bill O’Reilly sage­ly remarked, “I don’t want to ever hear Shia and Sun­ni again.” But it is beyond the job descrip­tion of top offi­cials to wish the prob­lems away, espe­cial­ly when the entire region is decom­pos­ing before our bleary eyes.

If Mr. Reyes had been read­ing the news­pa­per, he might have noticed Mr. Stein’s piece on The Times’s Op-Ed page two months ear­li­er, in which, like a wonk­ish Ali G, he caught many intel­li­gence and law enforce­ment offi­cials, as well as mem­bers of Con­gress, who did not know the dif­fer­ence between a Sun­ni and a Shi­ite.

“Too many offi­cials in charge of the war on ter­ror­ism just don’t care to learn much, if any­thing, about the ene­my we’re fight­ing,” he con­clud­ed. “And that’s enough to keep any­body up at night.”

The lack of intel­lec­tu­al urgency about our Mid­dle East wars is chill­ing. The Iraq Study Group report­ed that our efforts in Iraq are hand­i­capped by the fact that our embassy of 1,000 has only 33 Ara­bic speak­ers, just six who are flu­ent.

W., of course, failed a for­eign affairs pop quiz and still became a close ally of the Pak­istani dic­ta­tor he referred to as “Gen­er­al ... Gen­er­al.”

Once they have the job, the incen­tive of politi­cians to study is some­what dulled. Charles Z. Wick, who head­ed the U.S. Infor­ma­tion Agency dur­ing the Rea­gan years, sent a memo to his staff say­ing that he and the pres­i­dent need­ed to know if France was a mem­ber of NATO. Mr. Rea­gan had already been the pres­i­dent for years, The Times’s Steve Weis­man report­ed, when he expressed sur­prise at learn­ing that the Sovi­ets had most of their nuclear weapons on land-based mis­siles, while Amer­i­ca had rel­a­tive­ly few.

One pos­si­bil­i­ty is that Mr. Stein’s ques­tions were just too darn hard. He should have pitched a few warm-ups, like: How many sides are there in the Sun­ni Tri­an­gle? Or, which reli­gious fig­ure, Muham­mad or Jesus, has not been the sub­ject of a Mel Gib­son film?

Per­haps the ques­tions could be phrased Jeop­ardy-style, as in: “The name shared by two kings in Jor­dan and Sau­di Ara­bia.” (What is Abdul­lah?)

A mul­ti­ple choice might be eas­i­er on har­ried pol­i­cy mak­ers. For instance, which of the fol­low­ing quotes can be attrib­uted to Dick Cheney?

a) “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a lit­tle peo­ple, a sil­ly peo­ple: greedy, bar­barous and cru­el.”

b) “Don Rums­feld is the finest sec­re­tary of defense this nation has ever had.”

c) “Cer­tain things are not known to those who eat with forks.”

Or this: Is the Shi­ite cres­cent a) a puffy din­ner roll, b) a new Ramadan moon, or c) an arc of cri­sis?

Once our lead­ers get a grasp of the basics, we can hit them with a tru­ly hard ques­tion: Three and a half years after the inva­sion of Iraq, with near­ly 3,000 Amer­i­can troops dead and the Iraqis not remote­ly inter­est­ed in order or democ­ra­cy, what on earth do we do now?