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Knowing your Sunnis from your Shiites - Political Ignorance on the House Intelligence Committee:

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was almost certainly right to decide against appointing former impeached federal Judge Alcee Hastings as Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. However, Representative Silvestre Reyes, her new choice for the job, seems remarkably ignorant about the basics of Middle East politics - the central focus of American intelligence efforts in the current conflict. As Jeff Stein shows in this Congressional Quarterly article, Reyes doesn't understand the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and doesn't know which sect Al Qaeda belongs to:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

"Al Qaeda, they have both," Reyes said. "You're talking about predominately?"

"Sure," I said, not knowing what else to say.

"Predominantly — probably Shiite," he ventured.

He couldn't have been more wrong.

Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they'd slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.

That's because the extremist Sunnis who make up al Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics.

Later in the article, we learn that Reyes is also unaware of the fact that the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah is Shiite (an orientation that underpins their alliance with Shiite Iran, which provides most of their weapons and funding).

As Stein showed in this earlier article, congressional ignorance about the Sunni-Shiite split isn't confined to the Democrats, but is definitely bipartisan. For example, Senator Trent Lott, showing his typical insight and sensitivity, said in September that Sunnis and Shiites "all look the same to me" (quoted in the CQ article). Stein also showed that many Republican members of the Intelligence committee are as much or even more ignorant than Reyes is.

Much of my academic work deals with the dangers of political ignorance in the general public (e.g. here and here). However, the ignorance of elected officials may be just as dangerous.

In both cases, I suspect that the immense size, scope, and complexity of government is part of the problem. As I argued in the two articles linked above, it's hard for the average voter, with his limited time and effort, to keep track of more than a tiny fraction of all the government activity out there. The same seems to be true for the average congressman. It's not hard to understand the basics of the Sunni-Shiite split. However, a congressman who has to spend his time doling out pork to dozens of different constituencies, dealing with massive omnibus spending bills covering every subject under the sun, adding to the equally massive Federal Register of regulations, and overseeing hundreds of different federal agencies, can easily overlook the need to learn basics of Middle East politics. Indeed, members of Congress (even those who sit on the Intelligence Committee) probably have a much greater incentive to be knowledgeable about pork in their districts than about Middle East politics. Knowing about the former is more likely to be important to their reelection prospects.

There is no easy cure for political ignorance in Congress. I suspect that reducing the size and scope of government would help a lot by enabling Congressmen to focus on a narrower range of issues that they would then have time to study in greater depth. In the meantime, however, I hope that both Democratic and Republican leaders will try to appoint people to the Intelligence Committee who have at least a minimal knowledge of the people our intelligence agencies are supposed to be studying. A person who doesn't know that Al Qaeda is Sunni shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the Committee, much less be appointed Chairman.

SenatorX (mail):
Shocking..no excuse for it.
12.10.2006 6:58pm
BGates (mail) (www):
It's a disgrace that Trent Lott is in the Senate, for several reasons not least of which being his antebellum attitudes towards race relations. That being said, I don't understand why the quoted passage is objectionable.

Ilya, suppose I showed you 20 photos of Arab Iraqis. Could you tell Sunnis from Shia, or do they all look alike to you too?
12.10.2006 7:24pm
Ilya Somin:
That being said, I don't understand why the quoted passage is objectionable.

Ilya, suppose I showed you 20 photos of Arab Iraqis. Could you tell Sunnis from Shia, or do they all look alike to you too?


If you look at the context of Lott's quote, it's clear that he meant "they all look the same to me" in a metaphorical rather than literal sense. Moreover, he said this as an explanation for his lack of understanding of the Sunni-Shiite conflict. Here's the full quote:


Trent Lott, the veteran Republican senator from Mississippi, said only last September that "It's hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what's wrong with these people."

"Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion?" wondered Lott, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after a meeting with Bush.

"Why do they hate the Israelis and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference?

"They all look the same to me," Lott said.
12.10.2006 7:29pm
Speaking the Obvious:
Senator X couldn't be more wrong. How can it be shocking that people who routinely vote for bills they've never read turn out to be less knowledgeable than, say, professors of Middle East policy about Middle East events. Their constituents are equally ignorant on events outside the United States. That actually makes a fairly good argument for not being politically involved, or entrenched, in that region of the world.

No one can be an expert in all the various aspects of the world, let only domestic endevors, that the US government now sees fit to control. Granted, today's politicians are grossly ignorant when compared to those of generation's past--just compare their speeches to see they compare poorly in such basics as grammar, composition, logic, and rhetoric--but even "the best and the brightest" could not be expected to run the world well. Contrary to Ilya, this is not an argument for Congresswoman Pelosi to choose better; it is an argument against central planning, and for much smaller government.
12.10.2006 7:29pm
Ilya Somin:
it is an argument against central planning, and for much smaller government.

I agree, and made that point in the last part of the post. At the same time, even in the current Congress, with the current size of government, there are probably people who know more about the Middle East than Reyes does.
12.10.2006 7:38pm
Justice Fuller:
Ilya,

I wonder about your idea that reducing the size of government would free up time to learn about middle east politics. Wouldn't maintaining the status quo take less time than changing the size of government?
12.10.2006 7:54pm
Ilya Somin:
I wonder about your idea that reducing the size of government would free up time to learn about middle east politics. Wouldn't maintaining the status quo take less time than changing the size of government?

In the short run, possibly (though it depends on how the transition is managed). In the long run, definitely not. A government much smaller than what we have at present would require a lot less time and attention to become knowledgeable about.
12.10.2006 8:00pm
DougJ:
And these are the people who have been "elected" to help the nation out of the (vastly overstated) difficulties in Iraq. What a disgrace, that the Democrats would allow someone that ignorant to head up the intelligence committee. You can quibble about how the Bush administration has done this or that in Iraq, but there's no questioning the depth of the knowledge of people like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.
12.10.2006 8:12pm
SenatorX (mail):
I'm just amazed that anyone within a mile of any sort of "intelligence" group would at this stage not know:

a) that al qaeda is sunni

b) that hezbollah is shiite

I just don't get that. You would have to live in a complete box and avoid all discussion of the middle east for years now. Though I am a libertarian(and atheist) like Ilya I disagree with him on this one that bloated government is a valid excuse. To have missed the war in lebanon completely for example, news every night on every channel, the internet news, books, and every possible discussion about 9/11.

Maybe I'm naive but in my opinion that exposure of ignorance should be career death sentence for a politician. How low is the damn bar for god's sake?!! We have young soldiers dying every day and this fool hasn't taken the time in YEARS to even glance at whats going on? No, I don't get it.
12.10.2006 8:14pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Honestly, if the Lutherans decided to start a blood feud with the Baptists, I wouldn't know the difference either... and I'm a Christian!

Not all that shocking, really...
12.10.2006 8:17pm
MnZ (mail):
Disturbing, but not surprising. Politics tend to be dominated by people who tell voters what they want to hear rather than the truth. Therefore, we tend to end up with two types of politicians: honest ignoramuses or knowledgable liars.
12.10.2006 8:19pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Trent Lott's other statements are even more shocking than "they all look the same to me." For example when says, "It's hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what's wrong with these people." he really reveals his profound ignorance of the Middle East. Lott and the other members of Congress need to learn that other people are not just like Americans. Perhaps if they understood this, they would be a little less enthusiastic about immigration.

I found the book "The Arab Mind" by Raphael Patai enlightening. Patai is a cultural anthropologist with great admiration for Arabs. He says right off in the Preface, "When it comes to the Arabs, I must admit to an incurable romanticism, nay more than that: to having had a life long attachment to Araby." I say that many have criticized the work as anti-Arab. Another source for Arab anthropology is the English explorer Sir Richard Burton who made a pilgrimage (at great personal risk) to Mecca. You can download his works for free.
12.10.2006 8:26pm
Cornellian (mail):
A person who doesn't know that Al Qaeda is Sunni shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the Committee, much less be appointed Chairman.

So basically you're saying this particular Congressional committee should have zero members.
12.10.2006 8:33pm
Gabriel Malor (mail):
Zarkov,

Are you saying that you would have preferred Lott to say something like: "It's easy for Americans to understand what's wrong with these people." Doesn't that sound a little arrogant? Not to mention, just about everyone would be yelling back at him that if it's so easy, we wouldn't be having such trouble there.

I think, however objectionable some of Lott's remarks and policy positions are, the idea that it's difficult for Americans to understand and identify with non-Americans (especially non-Westerners) is neither objectionable or exceptional. It's pretty much a no-duh.
12.10.2006 8:35pm
vic:
Honestly, if the Lutherans decided to start a blood feud with the Baptists, I wouldn't know the difference either... and I'm a Christian!

Not all that shocking, really...


I think your analogy betrays an equally profound ignorance of the topic at hand.

the shia sunni schism might be more aptly viewed as simillar to the protestant/ catholic schism only magnified tenfold and much more violent.
12.10.2006 8:43pm
R Gould-Saltman (mail):
I think, however objectionable some of Lott's remarks and policy positions are, the idea that it's difficult for Americans to understand and identify with non-Americans (especially non-Westerners) is neither objectionable or exceptional.


While the "idea" is not objectionable, the FACT, and truth even in our halls of national government, is objectionable, sad and infuriating.


To expand in Ilya's response to BGates, Lott's "they all look the same to me" is clearly not only meant in a metaphorical sense; in this context (coming from Lott) it's so cliched as to almost no longer admit of parody or satire. A WASP American (particularly from the South) protesting that he can't be expected, or be bothered to distinguish among "those people", (be they black Americans, anyone speaking a foreign language, Asians of all nationalities, or "Ay-rabs") because "they all look alike to me" is not even funny any more; it bespeaks a perverted pride in the sort of deliberate ignorant provincialism and xenophobia which led some people, in the wake of 9/11, to attack perfectly well-meaning Sikh Americans because they wore beards and turbans and therefore "looked just like Osama bin Ladin"

r gould-saltman
12.10.2006 8:54pm
JB:
A. Zarkov,

Patai's book is routinely scoffed at in the Middle Eastern Studies community, by everyone left of Rumsfeld. You needn't be worried by Patai's conclusions, they are the product of sloppy scholarship, arrogance, and rather a lot of projection. Where they happen to ring true, it's more along the lines of a stopped clock being right twice a day than any particularly good reasoning.
12.10.2006 9:03pm
SenatorX (mail):
A.Zarkov, Sir Richard Burton is one of my favorite characters through all of history! Kudos to you for bringing him up.
12.10.2006 9:08pm
CS (mail):
The origin of the Sunni/Shia is a bit complicated. Basically, it stems from when Yazid (sixth Caliph according to the Sunnis, ruthless usurper according to the Shias) killed his main rival Hussain (grandson of Mohammed, and second Caliph/Imam according to the Shias) in battle near Karbala in A.D. 680 (about 50 years after Mohammed's death). However this isn't certain, as some (non-Muslim) scholars believe the early history of Islam to be largely mythical. Anyway, reading about these events kind of makes me appreciate why the Catholic church established celibacy for its priests...
12.10.2006 9:37pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I appreciate Prof. Somin's post, but the predictable "smaller gov't" panacea isn't terribly persuasive. (Though I shudder to imagine Prof. Kopel's solution to the problem.) People *like* having a large gov't that does a lot of stuff. 'Tis why governments are instituted among men, etc.

We have insipid representatives because we elect them, and we elect them, in no small part, because of a two-party system that presents us with the typical choice of Dumb and Dumber, together with an electoral system that rewards fundraising and corruption. The qualities that enable one to climb to the top of the greasy pole in 21st-century America are not, alas, those that make for a good statesman.
12.10.2006 9:42pm
Speaking the Obvious:
Justice Fuller asks: "I wonder about your idea that reducing the size of government would free up time to learn about middle east politics."

I think the point is more along the lines of Congressmen not really needing to be experts in the Middle East if the government, reduced in size (that is, in power) simply chose not to be politically involved with all the various warring factions there (including, of course, Israel).

I'd give a "for instance" example of my point, save for the fact that there currently is no area of human life that the government doesn't see some power and need to regulate.

Wait, I've got one: Congressmen do not need to be experts in, and would not be damaged by revelations they are not experts in, the historical details of the Crusades, since we are not currently funding or siding with one side or another of that battle, and therefore not responsible for the brutalities done under its name.

...OK, maybe not the best example...
12.10.2006 10:22pm
Parvenu:
I tend to share the skepticism about smaller government being the solution, too. People who believe deeply enough that a given action should be taken sometimes do begin to develop the notion that that particular thing is a universal antidote. The grass, however, is not always greener on the other side.

For example, what's to suggest that the solution to this particular problem (not all the problems endemic to our government, just the problem of lack of Middle East expertise on the House intelligence committee) might not be decreasing the size of "government," but instead increasing the size of the legislature to its constitutional maximum (one for every thirty thousand citizens, per Art. I sec. 2)? This is just a simple proposition that the chance of a representative (Representative?) sample of individuals containing a single member with a given rare characteristic (in this case, expertise in Middle East politics) increases with the size of the sample.

Obviously, this is a logistical nightmare of a proposal because the U.S. population recently passed 300 million, which would parlay into a House of 10,000. The MCI Center would become the new Capitol. (Then again, given the proliferation of corporate sponsorships and naming rights into everything from sea to shining sea and everything from birth to death, there might be something symbolically appropriate there ...)

Another reform that I'm less certain would be constitutional would be a transition to party list voting away from single-member plurality districts, which could bring in more expertise by changing the dynamics of candidate recruiting: one would need to make the party electable statewide, not an individual candidate locally. This could allow party recruiters to bring in a Middle Eastern expert that would finish second in a field of two under our current system but could be the second or third (or even first) priority on a list of candidates of which the party in question is essentially guaranteed three.

One can look back across American history to times when the central government was in fact smaller, and some state governments are still quite small (e.g., Virginia). I do not see convincing evidence that this led or leads to a greater degree of expertise on the part of the average legislator on all matters within their purview, nor did it make it more likely that a legislator would be in office with expertise in a specialized and technical field like Middle Eastern politics. More often than not, the narrower legislative ambit is merely correlated with a shorter legislative session. The composition of the body itself remains quite generalist.

More cynically, there may also be quite a failure of leadership here, on both sides of the aisle. Assume that some members of the House are generally quite intelligent and could become experts, or at least reasonably well informed, on Middle Eastern politics in a fairly short time if they wished. Why would they expend the effort, however, if internal politicking is the dispositive factor in the selection process? Suppose a freshman Congressman was strongly interested in intelligence policy and hired you as a consultant to advise him of the best way to move up the ranks in that field. Would you really advise him to spend a great deal of time becoming an authority on Middle Eastern politics or history, or any other substantive field of study? I have no insider knowledge of the appointments process, but it seems from my non-expert but enthusiastic hobbyist perspective, that that is not exactly the primary qualification for advancement in the current system.
12.10.2006 10:22pm
Ilya Somin:
I appreciate Prof. Somin's post, but the predictable "smaller gov't" panacea isn't terribly persuasive. (Though I shudder to imagine Prof. Kopel's solution to the problem.) People *like* having a large gov't that does a lot of stuff. 'Tis why governments are instituted among men, etc.

Actually, polls for decades show that they the majority of Americans would prefer government (especially the federal govt) to do less than it curently does. Even during the last election, polls showed that 54 percent thought that government is doing too much, and only 37 percent believe that it should be doing more. The majority of Americans are not libertarians, but they are willing to support significant reductions in the size and scope of government.
12.10.2006 10:22pm
Speaking the Obvious:
Me: "it is an argument against central planning, and for much smaller government.

Ilya: "I agree, and made that point in the last part of the post. At the same time, even in the current Congress, with the current size of government, there are probably people who know more about the Middle East than Reyes does."

Granting your empirical claim, Ilya, I'm sure you agree that:

1. There really is no strong incentive for Congressmen to become knowledgeable on this sort of thing. It's not what their constitutents look for. There is, of course, a difference between genuine knowledge and intelligence on an issue and people who are better or worse in buffing up prior to a hearing or press conference.

2. It is by no means clear that Congressional committees composed of experts in the area of discussion will necessarily lead to better outcomes. If, for example, a tax committee were composed of economists elected to Congress, facing all the incentives of re-election, needing the funding of special interests, etc., it might still not report out in favor of a flat tax.
12.10.2006 10:32pm
Paddy O. (mail):
I think your analogy betrays an equally profound ignorance of the topic at hand.

the shia sunni schism might be more aptly viewed as simillar to the protestant/ catholic schism only magnified tenfold and much more violent.

Or this betrays an equally profound ignorance about what some Protestants did to other Protestants not long after the reformation, let alone what Protestants did to Catholics and Catholics did to Protestants for a good four hundred years.
12.10.2006 10:35pm
Speaking the Obvious:
I have a problem with the way Parvenue views "bigger" vs "smaller" government. He seems to think it is a function of the number of Congressmen in Washingon. I would argue (and I think most people discussing this issue would agree) it is more properly defined by the power a government does or does not have to interfere/regulate/tax people's lives. A government of one-million Congressmen restricted to the powers of a night-watchman state is a small government. A totalitarian dictatorship, despite having no Congressmen, is not a small government.
12.10.2006 10:36pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
JB:

"Patai's book is routinely scoffed at in the Middle Eastern Studies community…"

I'm aware of that. But what specifically does he get wrong? I've too often seen "the community" get things wrong. For example the archeological community believed that pre-state people were largely peaceful, and that war was infrequent and ineffective. Now that's completely wrong according to Keeley who presents ample evidence to the contrary. The anthropological community thinks race is merely a social construct. Once the medical community didn't believe in blood flow rejecting evidence to the contrary. "We'd rather be wrong with Galen, than right with Harvey." Eugenics had wide support in the 1920s. When "the community" has people like Juan Cole and Edward Said, I'm a little suspicious.
12.10.2006 10:48pm
JB:
Paddy O.

On the other hand, Sunnis have been happily massacring Sunnis for 1400 years, and the only reason Shi'ites haven't been massacring Shi'ites is because, by and large, the Sunnis were better at the massacring so there were fewer Shi'ite states to fight one another.
12.10.2006 10:48pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Malor:

"Are you saying that you would have preferred Lott to say something like: "It's easy for Americans to understand what's wrong with these people."

I would have preferred Lott to not to say "what's wrong with these people" because there is nothing "wrong" with them. They act according to their beliefs, their culture and history.
12.10.2006 10:55pm
fooburger (mail) (www):
I'm agreeing with SoO on this one I think.
Democracy is about popularity contests. The point is not to elect experts, but but elect representatives the people like, and whom will hopefully consult experts on various issues when determining policy.
To want a congress full of experts is to want a congress which will not adequately represent the people of the US.

I'm not an 'expert'. I do obviously know the general differences between some sects of islam, but I am probably unusually interested in these things. But most intelligent people I know don't understand these things.
12.10.2006 11:00pm
Parvenu:
StO, I agree with your definition of "bigger government" and "smaller government." I would not classify a larger legislature as "bigger government." My point was that I believe the big/small government dichotomy irrelevant to the problem of the lack of expertise on the intelligence committee. I don't think a smaller government (in the libertarian sense) would solve it, nor do I think a more intrusive government would. Bluntly, I think that people who think smaller government will solve this problem are starting at the solution and working backwards.
12.10.2006 11:03pm
DougJ:
Lott should have retired long ago in any case. He became a complete RINO after he lost his leadership position. If you ask me, the entire "Gang of 14" should have been expelled from the Senate after their little stunt.
12.10.2006 11:03pm
Parvenu:
fooburger writes: <blockquote>
Democracy is about popularity contests. The point is not to elect experts, but but elect representatives the people like, and whom will hopefully consult experts on various issues when determining policy.
</blockquote>
If that's the case, however, then this entire thread is meaningless (even by blogosphere standards ...), as it is meaningless to criticize Reyes for lacking expertise if we have no cause to believe he should have it. Presumably he represented the values of the voters in his district better than his opponent; that got him into the assembly.

However, when we say we want Representatives to "represent" their districts, that may mean being represetnative of their values, but hopefully not of their actual average level of information on topics highly relevant to public policy, particularly in areas where a given Representative is going to be assigned special responsibility.
12.10.2006 11:10pm
SenatorX (mail):
I agree Parvenu. I guess it comes back to both the quality of canidates available for the special responsibilites and the selection process. I would hazard that in all the house there have to be many quite intelligent people which begs the question what is selection criterion for putting these people in various posts. I am not savvy on this process but can I guess its purely political?

Comes back around to the common libertarian arguement for both smaller government in size AND scope. The goal to try and limit the damage they do with thier ignorant man hands.
12.10.2006 11:43pm
godfodder (mail):
A. Zarkov:
It's a small point really, but isn't it just possible that Trent Lott's point was only that Shites and Sunnis "look alike" because they are, after all, human beings? Because the things that they have in common dwarf the things that separate them? That miniscule doctrinal differences are no reason for human beings to slaughter one another? That they are separated by abstractions, but their flesh and blood is the same?

Believe me, I'm no fan of Trent Lott, but I think too many people these days are addicted to partisan caricatures. I see this most commonly with President Bush. Ideological foes insist that every idea, every policy, every word out of his mouth is, by definition, either wrong or a lie. Remember-- even a broken watch is right twice a day. Trent Lott is probably batting about the same.

Just because you don't like someone doesn't mean he never says something reasonable! If the Baptists "proper" began slaughtering the Southern Baptists, would it be so egregious for someone to remind them that "they all look alike"?
12.10.2006 11:46pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
godfodder:

I basically agree with you, and you said it very well. I don't really know what was in Trott's mind, but I think one needs to be careful of not only what you say, but also the way you say it. Unfortunately for him, Trott is a lighting rod for criticism, and he needs to be extra careful. Sometimes it's better to just shut up.
12.11.2006 12:05am
JB:
Zharkov:

Most specifically, his depiction of the "honor and shame" culture is overblown. Your average city-dwelling Arab is much less sex-obsessed, honor-obsessed, and liable to fly off the handle and maintain grudges than Patai thinks. What he got right was the tendency to cut off the nose to spite the face, but that's a tendency, not the rule, as Patai would have it.

Most of what Patai sees as cultural pathology is particular cultural artifacts they don't want to let go in the face of Western influence. It's more like the French opposition to McDonalds than anything else--an arrogant people with a glorious past find it useful to oppose the ascendant rival arrogant culture. What Patai sees as the unalterable Arab character is really just a snapshot of what the Arabs were doing in the 1970s, with a whole load of pseudoscientific psychological bullbleep piled on to support his point.

Patai offers a caricature and calls it a photograph. Worse, his extremely broad statements almost completely obscure what valid points he has--the architects of the various air-raid attack strategies used by Israel and the USA clearly read Patai where he talks about how the inability to defend themselves is shameful, but they miss the other point, which is that shame is reacted to by grudges, not by surrender. Insofar as Patai has a point there (and he sort of does), his adherents misread him into further error.
12.11.2006 12:09am
Lev:
I hate to be sort of defending Lott on this, but it seems to me he is saying, how do you look at a group people that you know are a mixture of Shiites and Sunnis and tell which is which. I don't know how one does. Same for a group of Protestants and Catholics - get a group of Belfastians together and tell me which are the Protestants and which are the Catholics.

Similarly -

Trent Lott, the veteran Republican senator from Mississippi, said only last September that "It's hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what's wrong with these people." "Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion?"


What is wrong with them that they are killing people of other religions, and even the same religion, because of religion? Why aren't they trying to persuade by reason, or preaching, or other proselytizing? Why killing?

That seems to be to be fair comment directed at the heart of the matter...unless one believes it is ok to kill people of other religions.

With respect to Reyes and the other "Intelligence" committee members who don't know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis - given the pathetically incompetent oversight those committees have performed vis-a-vis the CIA et al., and given the pathetically incompetent performance of the "intelligence" agencies especially the CIA, why would one expect the "Intelligence" committee members to know anything about anything? Does the CIA even know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites and who is in Hezbollah and al Queda? One must wonder, and not optimistically.

Reps might be elected without special expertise in any particular area, but they sure as hell better get some with respect to the committees they are on if they aren't going to completely #$%@ up. Unfortunately, the results are evidence of the knowledge.
12.11.2006 12:13am
Alan K. Henderson (mail) (www):
At the very least, everybody in Congress should have known by now that Hezbollah is Shi'ite, considering that it's also an Iranian client organization.
12.11.2006 12:16am
Parvenu:
SenatorX writes (I'm giving up on getting this _____ blockquote tag to work):

<i>Comes back around to the common libertarian arguement for both smaller government in size AND scope. The goal to try and limit the damage they do with thier ignorant man hands.</i>

I still think that that is barking up the wrong tree on this point, however. Even the most libertarian government imaginable barring an Ayn Rand topia would still be responsible for national defense, which includes the gathering of intelligence on potential adversaries. Unless you actually accept the argument that the Middle East is populated by fellow live-and-let-live libertarians (I suggest that the evidence points to the contrary), reducing our international footprint would not reduce our problems flowing from that region. "It takes but one foe to breed a war, not two ... and those who have not swords can still die upon them."

A smaller government might be able to get entirely out of the business of regulating corporate directors &officers, securities filings, banking, and many other private activities (regulatory burden). It might also be able to get entirely out of the business of providing retirement security, medical care, and subsidies for everything from farming to education to rent (tax burden). Those committees relating to national defense and foreign policy would remain, however, even in a libertarian government, as would those related to the judiciary. Therefore, the issue of the expertise of those serving on those committees would remain very much alive.
12.11.2006 12:23am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
It's really surprising that he doesn't know. However supposing he hasn't been on the intelligence committee before this isn't necessarily a problem. Arguably having someone knew the the material come in and spend a lot of time learning it and evaluating lots of advice from those who are familiar is often a better method of oversight (though likely not of decision making). What bothers me about this example is that he faked knowledge rather than just saying he didn't know

On the Lott comment I'm confused about what the error is. After all Sunnis and Shiites are two religious groups not ethnic groups so they *do* all look the same (ok their are ethnic correlations, e.g., Persian and shitte). Was this in some broader context.
12.11.2006 4:11am
Perseus (mail):
When you enter the House of Representatives in Washington, you feel yourself struck by the vulgar aspect of this great assembly. Often the eye seeks in vain for a celebrated man within it. Almost all its members are obscure persons, whose name furnishes no image to one's thought. They are, for the most part, village attorneys, those in trade, and or even men belonging to the lowest classes. In a country where instruction is almost universally widespread, it is said that the people's representatives do not always know how to write correctly.


That, of course, was Tocqueville writing in the 1830s when the size and scope of the federal government was much smaller. So I think that the cure for political ignorance lies elsewhere.
12.11.2006 6:16am
Jeek:
It's a disgrace that Trent Lott is in the Senate, for several reasons not least of which being his antebellum attitudes towards race relations.

Is he more objectionable than Grand Cyclops Bob Byrd?

Granted, today's politicians are grossly ignorant when compared to those of generation's past

I am not so sure of this. One wonders how many Congressmen from 1945 to 1990 could have named, say, three members of the Soviet Politburo or the head of the KGB.

I would have preferred Lott to not to say "what's wrong with these people" because there is nothing "wrong" with them. They act according to their beliefs, their culture and history.

One could say the same of the Nazis... and the Khmer Rouge... and the Bosnian Serb Army... and the Janjaweeds... and the Interhamwe... and indeed every group of humans that has ever misbehaved. There is nothing "wrong" with saying that there is something "wrong" with people, especially when it concerns a set of beliefs that represents a long-term threat to the freedom of everyone on the planet. Whether or not the US government can or should do anything about this problem is another matter entirely.
12.11.2006 8:25am
The River Temoc (mail):
However this isn't certain, as some (non-Muslim) scholars believe the early history of Islam to be largely mythical.

Who, exactly, says that the Battle of Karbala was mythical? I've never heard that one.
12.11.2006 8:40am
The River Temoc (mail):
Actually, polls for decades show that they the majority of Americans would prefer government (especially the federal govt) to do less than it curently does. Even during the last election, polls showed that 54 percent thought that government is doing too much, and only 37 percent believe that it should be doing more.

Polls also can show that Americans want fewer taxes and more services, concurrently.

Abstract beliefs are one thing; what people actually *do* in their political behavior is another.
12.11.2006 8:42am
Anderson (mail) (www):
polls for decades show that they the majority of Americans would prefer government (especially the federal govt) to do less than it curently does

Come now, sir, this is a well-known fallacy. Sure, they say that. But when it comes to "what would you like the gov't to do less of," it turns out that small gov't isn't so popular after all.

People also say they want Xmas to be less commercial, &then they spend more money than ever before on gifts &glitz.
12.11.2006 9:41am
Ken Arromdee:
One wonders how many Congressmen from 1945 to 1990 could have named, say, three members of the Soviet Politburo or the head of the KGB.

Knowing the names of three members of the Politburo is not directly relevant to understanding Cold War politics unless there's a big split in the Politburo with different members doing different things.

Knowing that certain groups are Shiites and certain groups are Sunni is directly relevant to understanding the Middle East.

The Cold War analogy isn't naming members of the Politburo, but rather understanding that the Soviet and Chinese Communists didn't like each other much and knowing that certain countries or factions were pro-Soviet and others are pro-Chinese. That *is* something we would expect politicians to know during the Cold War era.
12.11.2006 9:42am
Hoosier:
I'm always stunned that these guys often don't seem to know what's in the newspapers every day. I have a job, young children, a "research agenda" designed to avoid losing my job and seeing my kids starve--and yet I could have passed the quiz. If a member on the intel committee couldn't give a good disquisition on the difference between Tamils and Sinhalese, he could be forgiven. But this is--to repeat myself--a matter for the daily papers.

We can all agree that no one can be an expert on everything that comes before a member. But isn't this why they have staffs?
12.11.2006 10:09am
Virginia:
Reyes doesn't need to know about Sunnis and Shi'ites. He knows that all Middle East's problems were caused by George Bush, and that's enough to get him the job.
12.11.2006 10:37am
Hoosier:
Now kids . . . Bush is bad, m'kay?

He's bad.

Rumsfeld--He's bad. M'kay?

(This would make for fun viewing on C-SPAN.)
12.11.2006 10:52am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
The problem with the newspapers, etc., is that they are either over-simplifying what is going on or are misleading. My current frustration is that Sunni Arab has been indiscriminately killing Shiite civilians with ever increasing vigor and now the Shiites are finally striking back, and everyone is worried about the Sunni Arabs in Iraq. Of course, Saudi Arabia is worried about the Sunni Arabs in Iraq - but maybe its concern is a bit late, given the there have been a lot more Saudi terrorists caught or killed in Iraq than any other nationality (of the foreign Sunni jihadists) and a lot of the money behind the Sunni insurgence seems to have been Saudi. Yes, most likely not directly government supported, but still... Of course, this should mean that we need to actively discourage them from intervening militarily in Iraq to protect their brethern there.

Maybe part of the solution would be to provide those in Congress who have to deal with this subject (esp. the Intelligence committees), as well as those in the Administration and the MSM, a cheat-sheet that would lay out the following:
- The demographic (in particular, religious) distribution of:
-- The countries in the Middle East.
-- The major non-government players, including al Qaeda, Taliban, Hizb'Allah, the various Palestinian groups like Fatah, etc.
- In the case of countries, what demographic is running the country or area, and how that compares with the demographics for the rest of the country.
- Within the two major sects of Islam, the major disputes or sub-sects, and again, what countries and players are tied to which. In Shia Islam, I think this is primarily the dispute between Khomeini and Khoei/Sistani, wheras in Sunni Islam, it is more between the Wahhabis and those less puritanical.
12.11.2006 10:55am
Jeek:
Ken, knowing the names of some - or any - Soviet leaders is an even more basic level of knowledge than knowing anything about the Sino-Soviet dispute. Anyone who knew anything about the Sino-Soviet dispute (including the fact that there WAS such a dispute) would certainly be able to name some Soviet leaders, but someone able to name a Soviet leader would not necessarily know anything about the Sino-Soviet dispute or what policies that leader favored. In short, I was setting the bar of knowledge very low, yet still I think many American politicians of the Cold War wouldn't have been able to get over it.

It was always true that members of the Politburo favored different things, and thus it was always true that knowing who they were was directly relevant to Cold War politics. This was something that a responsible Congressman - e.g. chair of the intelligence committee - should have known, without question. Yet I bet they didn't.
12.11.2006 10:59am
Jeek:
We can all agree that no one can be an expert on everything that comes before a member. But isn't this why they have staffs?

Yeah, but just what kind of briefings are his staff giving him if he doesn't even know anything this basic? It's hard to see how even the most elementary briefings on subjects of interest to the intelligence committee could fail to impart information of this sort. Is the staff not doing its job, or is he not paying attention?

One suspects that if it's not related to jobs in his district, it goes in one ear and out the other...
12.11.2006 11:03am
Earl (mail):

Come now, sir, this is a well-known fallacy. Sure, they say that. But when it comes to "what would you like the gov't to do less of," it turns out that small gov't isn't so popular after all.


Is this similar to the "well-known fallacy" that fat people want to lose weight? Do we need only to examine their unwillingness to eliminate ice cream from their diets to prove their desire to be fat?
12.11.2006 12:01pm
H. Tuttle:
>A person who doesn't know that Al Qaeda is Sunni shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the Committee, much less be appointed Chairman.<

And why exactly is that when said member of Congress might otherwise have an understanding of Al Qaeda's voiced threats, their favored methodology, successful past actions and proclaimed future goals? That Al Qaeda is Sunni instead of Shite-based has exactly what effect on the forementioned items?
12.11.2006 12:17pm
JB:
H. Tuttle: What effect does it have? Well, when the Iran-hawks start saying "Iran's in bed with Al-Qaeda," those who know Al-Qaeda's Sunni will be able to call bullshit.

It's more of a general knowledge thing. Like if someone in the 1960s didn't know that China and the Soviet Union were at loggerheads...oh wait.

River Temoc: Penny Crone has a number of books on the subject, with the thesis that Islam was retroactively invented in the 700s to explain the conquest of the Middle East by Arab tribes from what is now Jordan and the Hijaz. It's based on the total lack of written tradition before then (except for a few pieces which show that there was a leader in Medina named Muhammad around the 620s), but in my opinion, and in the opinion of most of the discipline, throws the baby out with the bathwater.
12.11.2006 1:06pm
Gary McGath (www):
Sorry, but even immediately after reading an explanation of the differences between Sunni and Shia, I can't make it stick in my head. I'm perfectly aware that people in the 21st century will kill each other over a disagreement concerning Muhammad's succession in the 7th, but it makes all the sense of the Babylon 5 episode in which the Drazi conducted a religious war on the basis of the color of sashes they drew out of a box. It's important to keep the list, I suppose, just to know which people are likely to kill which other people -- Ayatollah Khomeini Shiite, Hezbollah Sunni, Al Qaeda Sunni, etc. -- but the whole thing is so ridiculous my mind just wants to toss it all in the trash can.
12.11.2006 1:57pm
JB:
What's important to remember is:

1) Who is which, so you know who's backing who
2) That this has been going on for 1400 years, so the idea that outsiders can solve it in 3 years is total nonsense
3) It's political as well as theological, so it's a grudge held by people who are very good at holding grudges.
4) It's theological as well as political, so the division isn't going to go away.
5) Both sides have holy places they care a lot about, even if the other side is the ones who live there now.

We don't need people to be able to recite the history of Karbala, Siffin, etc...just to understand these few general things about the problem, so they don't act like morons when trying to solve it.
12.11.2006 2:06pm
Mark F. (mail):
The majority of Americans are not libertarians, but they are willing to support significant reductions in the size and scope of government

So, that's why they keep electing people who support the opposite? I'm also a libertarian, but your opinion is not based in reality.
12.11.2006 2:32pm
Enoch:
So, that's why they keep electing people who support the opposite?

When the choices are consistently (a) people who support significant expansion in the size and power of the government, vs. (b) other people who support significant expansion in the size and power of the government, it is only natural that the American people keep electing people who support significant expansion in the size and power of the government...
12.11.2006 4:47pm
Parvenu:
The "shrinking government" argument tends to be viewed more positively at a distance than up close. In sum, everyone likes smaller government--except when their own perks or privileges are led to the chopping block.

It's rather like the definition of suburban sprawl. Suburban sprawl is a bad thing as long as we define it as the next guy's subdivision, not mine. They should leave. I, on the other hand, should keep my 3500 square feet on a third of an acre on a gated cul-de-sac in a gated community in good neighborhood with good schools and a two-SUV garage and several more prepositional phrases.
12.11.2006 6:51pm
Konspirator:
That the House's Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence lacks the kind of people who could provide appropriate oversight is not surprising. For example, for what it's worth, Rep. Elton Gallegly (CA-24), a 10-term member of Congress and a senior member of that committe, flunked out of college after two months (to be a real estate agent, actually).
12.11.2006 7:05pm
agum (mail):
Rep. Elton Gallegly is (R-CA), which is a bit more important than (CA-24).

Although, to be fair, Southern California elects some strikingly idiotic representatives, such as the barely literate Duke Cunningham (R-Taft Federal Prison), and Mary Bono (R-CA).
12.11.2006 7:55pm
Knemon (mail):
"Eugenics had wide support in the 1920s."

In the form of selective abortion, it's poised to make a comeback! Everything right is wrong again ...
12.11.2006 9:43pm
JB:
Another disturbing thing about this particular instance of ignorance is that Reyes, who clearly knows nothing about Shi'ites or Sunnis, rather than admitting that ignorance makes up answers out of whole cloth.

The tendency of legislators to do that with other issues they know nothing about is responsible for much of the lousy legislation and government bloat we bemoan.

If Reyes had just admitted, "I have no idea," I'd feel a lot better, as it'd show the sort of humility and acknowledgement of the complexities of the issue that has been sorely lacking in our policy, knowledge or no knowledge.
12.11.2006 10:04pm
Lev:
This was my favorite pathetic part:


And Hezbollah? I asked him. What are they?

"Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah..."

He laughed again, shifting in his seat.

"Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?"
12.11.2006 11:20pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Obviously, this is a logistical nightmare of a proposal because the U.S. population recently passed 300 million, which would parlay into a House of 10,000. The MCI Center would become the new Capitol.
Remember the Senate scene in one of the recent Star Wars movies? That captures what it would be like.

Perhaps we could limit the federal government to foreign policy and regulating truly interstate commerce. The nice thing is we don't even have to change the Constitution--just the judges.
12.12.2006 11:57am
Q Branch (mail):
However supposing he hasn't been on the intelligence committee before this isn't necessarily a problem.

Why would you suppose such a thing? Aside from the fact that it happens to be wrong, why would you suppose it when you can look it up? A quick search took me to politicalgateway.com where I read that:

Reyes, a Vietnam veteran and former Border Patrol agent, has been on the committee since 2001, The New York Times reported.

Not everyone in the Middle East is our enemy, but when it comes to those who are, we must know our enemies if we are to defend ourselves against them effectively. It is hard for Trent Lott, and others, to understand the dynamics of the situation we are in. Very well, let them get out of the way and let others who do understand it deal with it.

Reyes has been on the Intelligence Committee since 2001 and still has yet to so much as peruse the Dramatis Personae of the drama we find ourselves in. His only qualifications are 1) his name is not Jane Harman, and 2) his name is not Alcee Hastings. I for one demand better.
12.12.2006 12:38pm
Punditpunch:
Dear Mr. Somin and commentators,
I agree that ignorance of a few critical facts that could be learned by a gradeschool student, if there were no taboos on discussing them, is unacceptable and dangerous. However, I think the size of the government today as well as the ignorance of congressmen of certain issues is a result of the complexity of the world we do in fact live in, and our state of knowledge we have about our world---a natural consequence of circumstance, not explicit policy. As such there is very little to be done about it except nag the legislators into comprehension of the issues of which they are ignorant.
12.12.2006 3:43pm