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.