pageok
pageok
pageok
Taking the Sunni-Shiite Quiz:

ABC News has recently posted this handy Sunni-Shiite quiz. The quiz tests your knowledge of which important Middle Eastern Muslim countries and political factions - such as Al Qaeda and Iran - are Sunni and which are Shiite. As I explained in this post, many members of Congress, including some who sit on the House Intelligence Committee would probably flunk. In general, I'm skeptical of the utility of "good government" reforms. However, here's one that I can support:

No congressman should be allowed to join the Intelligence Committee - or any other committee that deals with US Middle East policy - without first scoring a perfect 8 for 8 on this very simple quiz.

UPDATE: Mark Kleiman comments on this post. He agrees with me on the desirability of applying the test to would-be members of relevant congressional committees. And I agree with him that it would make sense to apply a similar test to executive branch officials responsible for foreign policy issues. However, I part company with his claim that ignorance in government is unrelated to the vast size and complexity of the public sector and can easily be solved by "attract[ing] a better class of elected and appointed officials" (I originally made the opposite argument here). I'm all for attracting more knowledgeable officials, but the modern state creates perverse incentives that make this laudable objective difficult to achieve.

Voters don't select candidates based on the latters' knowledge of policy issues, and given the voters own massive ignorance (see e.g., my publications here and here), it is highly unlikely that they will ever do so. Successful politicians must devote their time to those activities that help them get reelected, which involves more time spent fundraising, handing out pork, and lining up interest group support, and relatively little time spent studying public policy in any depth.

As for executive branch officials, they are selected for the kinds of qualifications that help to achieve the objectives of their superiors and often those of powerful interest groups that influence the selection of appointees. Sometimes these agendas will lead to the hiring of knowledgeable policy experts, but often they won't. Moreover, given the enormous size, scope, and complexity of modern government, it is highly unlikely that top officials will be knowledgeable about more than a small fraction of its activities, even if those officials were much smarter and better educated than those we have now. Even with a degree of specialization, the knowledge burden of running the modern state will still be enormous. As F.A. Hayek explained in this classic essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society," this is one of the main reasons why markets are superior to central planning.

If we want leaders who are knowledgeable about the issues they decide on, we need to reduce the number of those issues, and also reduce their opportunities to ensure their election and reelection by means other than good policy performance. Much of the time, the only way to achieve these objectives is to reduce the size and scope of government. If Congress lacked the power to hand out pork, give political payoffs to interest groups, and engage in other similar activities, its members would have much stronger incentives to become knowledgeable about major issues, since it would be harder for them to achieve reelection other than by good performance on those issues.

Contra Kleiman's characterization of my views, I don't believe in the mantra of "private sector good, public sector bad." Rather, I believe that the public sector can be good (especially compared to the status quo) if its functions are confined to a narrow range. Otherwise, its performance will indeed be "bad" a high percentage of the time.

llamasex (mail) (www):
You got 8 of 8 right.

Yay me. You only really need to know the answers to the first 2 and you can figure out the rest.

I hope I am not spoiling anything

If Hezbollah is shiite and they are supported by Iran what do you think they are? if Al Sadr ran to Iran what do you think he is?

If AlQeada is Sunni, and there camps are all in Pakistan now what do you think they are? Same with the Sauds.

I never understood the tone of many of your posts citing a failure in government as a reason for lack of government. It isn't a logical conclusion to draw.
2.23.2007 2:16am
Ilya Somin:
I never understood the tone of many of your posts citing a failure in government as a reason for lack of government. It isn't a logical conclusion to draw.

It is if the failure is caused by structure flaws in government as an institution - flaws that make it inferior to free markets and civil society.
2.23.2007 2:43am
Zork:
I don't see why U.S. congressmen should be fluent in the nuances of every tribal conflict out there.

I could come up with tests on ethnic/religious conflicts in, say, India, that Ilya would get far less than 8 out of 8 on, and India has several times the number of people as the entire Arab World.

The real question is why members of our press think it's rational to expect that U.S. congressmen should need to be up on the minutiae of a tribal conflict halfway around the world, instead of focusing on their constituents at home.

And don't say "because half our army's there," because then I'll just say, "and why should that be?"
2.23.2007 2:44am
JB:
Zork, you have it backwards (but completely right). Why did these people send half our army there when they had no clue what was going on? Why is this, of all world conflicts, that important?
2.23.2007 3:27am
Viscus (mail) (www):

In general, I'm skeptical of the utility of "good government" reforms.


This is good. Now, if you would extend your skepticism to everything else too, then you would have a balanced view. Skepticism is good, except when it is used selectively to reinforce our own biases.
2.23.2007 3:33am
llamasex (mail) (www):

It is if the failure is caused by structure flaws in government as an institution - flaws that make it inferior to free markets and civil society.


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.


I would agree there are systematic flaws in our government, but I think those are mostly unrelated to the size and power of our system.

You list out all the things Congress as a whole deals with "regulations, spending bills.. yadda yadda" missing the
obvious that you are complaining about the intelligence Committee government is already compartmentalized, the average congressman doesn't really need to be concerned with most of that, they can specialize and focus on specific areas

Does the size of government really force a congressman to put pork above learning and understanding intelligence reports?

The problem seems to be on the ends of the voters who would rather vote for the imbecile who brings home the pork than a civic minded. And it isn't that the voters are too overwhelmed to understand where Robert Byrd or Ted Stevens priorities lay. Ir's obvious they care more about bringing home the dollars than good governance.

So I don't see how you can go about blaming the system when in theory it could work just fine. That it doesn't isn't reason to throw out the baby with the bath water.
2.23.2007 3:38am
jim:

No congressman should be allowed to join the Intelligence Committee - or any other committee that deals with US Middle East policy - without first scoring a perfect 8 for 8 on this very simple quiz.


What disturbs me is not that someone could get on the Intellgence Committee without knowing the answers to these questions. What disturbs me is that someone could serve on the Intelligence Committe for any nontrivial amount of time and not end up picking up the answers to these questions on the side.

How meaningful can Congressional oversight be if in the course of conducting it, Congressmen don't learn as much as you learn during the first week of a Freshman seminar or from reading the newspaper for a month?
2.23.2007 4:28am
Beerslurpy (mail) (www):

I never understood the tone of many of your posts citing a failure in government as a reason for lack of government. It isn't a logical conclusion to draw.


Because most modern government failures are due to government doing things that governments are ill suited for and then using the treasury to prevent the market from removing these failed institutions. Even when government is solving real problems, its actions often create institutions that endure long after the original problems are solved.

When companies produce shitty or obselete products, the market retires them from use and the employees go other things at other companies. The economy thus disposes of waste and foolishness. Where is the equivalent governmental waste-removal mechanism? There is one, which is why the best reform for government is to get rid of broken institutions rather than trying to fix them.
2.23.2007 4:33am
Beerslurpy (mail) (www):

Where is the equivalent governmental waste-removal mechanism? There is one, which is why


Meant to say "There isn't one"
2.23.2007 4:34am
Ilya Somin:
Does the size of government really force a congressman to put pork above learning and understanding intelligence reports?


It does if he intends to have a successful political career. If he ignores the pork, he will be beaten out by other politicians who don't.

The problem seems to be on the ends of the voters who would rather vote for the imbecile who brings home the pork than a civic minded. And it isn't that the voters are too overwhelmed to understand where Robert Byrd or Ted Stevens priorities lay. Ir's obvious they care more about bringing home the dollars than good governance.

Actually, in survey after survey, voters say that they disapprove of pork. The problem is that government is so large that they lack the time and incentive to focus their attention on pork (or the Sunnis and Shiites for that matter). On the other hand, well-organized interest groups who benefit from pork can and do focus on it. As a result, Byrd, Stevens, et al. have every incentive to focus on pork and little incentive to focus on understanding foreign policy. If government were smaller in size and lacked the power to dole out pork and other similar interest group payoffs, the incentives of politicians would be very different.
2.23.2007 5:38am
Ilya Somin:
I don't see why U.S. congressmen should be fluent in the nuances of every tribal conflict out there.

First of all, a religious conflict is not a "tribal" conflict. Second, and much more important, this particular conflict is central to the problems our foreign policy faces in the Middle East - perhaps the most crucial area in the world for us to succeed in, since 9/11. And the questions asked in the survey are not about minor nuances but about very basic facts such as whether Al Qaeda is Sunni or Shiite, or whether Iran is.
2.23.2007 5:40am
Steve:
If Hezbollah is shiite and they are supported by Iran what do you think they are?

If Hezbollah is Shiite and they are supported by Syria, what do you think Syria is? But you'd be wrong.
2.23.2007 7:50am
DanielH (mail):
"If Hezbollah is Shiite and they are supported by Syria, what do you think Syria is? But you'd be wrong."

Depends on if you're talking about the government or the majority of its citizens. The Syrian government is largely Alawite, a small Shiite sect, while most of the population is Sunni. The rule works better if you think about it in terms of governments. But of course both Iran and Syria support Hamas, a Sunni group, so there it breaks down. It is only a rule of thumb.
2.23.2007 8:11am
Enoch:
The problem seems to be on the ends of the voters who would rather vote for the imbecile who brings home the pork than a civic minded. And it isn't that the voters are too overwhelmed to understand where Robert Byrd or Ted Stevens priorities lay. Ir's obvious they care more about bringing home the dollars than good governance.

I don't even think the average person votes for "pork" - after all, how many people know for sure that "Congressman Smith got me my job"? Most people probably just vote the party line, or vote on the basis of a single issue (e.g. "Congressman Smith will protect my right to choose!").
2.23.2007 8:12am
gasman (mail):
Sunni = peoples popular front
Shiite = popular peoples front
Without a doubt the US is the common enemy of these two. If they ever realize that and set aside their desire to destory the other then we're really screwed.
2.23.2007 8:34am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Part of why this information (knowing the differences between Sunni and Shi'a) is critical is that that is one of the, if not the, critical fault lines in the Middle East right now. Which makes it one of the major fault lines in the world.

A lot of what has happened in the Middle East at least since 1978/9 revolves around this fault line, and in particular, (majority) Sunni Saudi Arabia and (majority) Shiite Iran vying for dominence in the Muslim world. Thus, to some extent, this helps explain the Saudi (and thus our) initial involvement in Afganistan when it was under Soviet occupation (and why the Taliban was initially encouraged), their support for al Qaeda, the Pakistani bomb, supporting the Palestinians, Saddam Hussein in his war on Iran, etc. all in an effort to encircle and neutralize Shiite Iran. Indeed, even to this day, they (not officially of course) are the primary supporters of al Qaeda, esp. in Iraq right now, both financially and with jihadi volunteers.

Of course, the Iranians haven't been sitting on their hands while the Saudis have been trying to encircle them. Their counter to Hamas, Fatah, etc. is the much more effective Hizb'Allah. So, now the Saudis find themselves almost boxed in with a ring of Shi'a to their north, running through Iran, Iraq, and into Lebannon, with Syria out of play right now because of their quasi-Shi'a Alawite rulers, and then some of the Gulf Kingdoms having large Shi'a populations, and even a worry about their own minority Shi'a (the later almost w/i spitting distance of Mecca and Medina, the protection of which is one of the Kingdom's primary claims to Muslim leadership).

Of course, this is nothing new - the two major strands of Islam have been vying for dominence at least from the time of the martyrdom of Muhammad's grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, at Karbala (about 100 km SW of Baghdad) in 680 CE. Possibly even earlier, as the the original schism involved the passing over of the Prophet's nephew and son-in-law (and Husayn's father) Ali ibn Abi Talib for leadership is Islam. Indeed, the term Shi'a comes from the Arabic for the party of Ali.

And the dispute continues to this day, 1327 years later, with much of what is happening in Iraq today revolving around this contest for dominence. Ths Sunnis, culminating in the rule of Saddam Hussein, have controlled the majority Shi'a there for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, esp. in the last decade or so of his rule, this required ever greater levels of brutality. But now, thanks to the intervention of the U.S. in particular, the Shi'a in Iraq have control over their own destiny, and working with the anti-Wahhabi Kurdish Sunnis, completely dominate the popularly elected government there. Nevertheless, the Sunni Arabs haven't accepted this peacefully, which is why their level of violence against their majority Shiite brethern has constantly escalated as their power wanes, as evidenced most recently by the gas attacks over the last couple of weeks. Most of the violence right now in Iraq revolves around Sunni Arabs indiscriminately murdering innocent Shi'a civilians, and the more hot headed of the Shi'a now retaliating, with the U.S. and its allies trying to keep the bloodshed down.

Almost everything in Iraq right now, and indeed, throughout the Middle East, has to be viewed through the lens of this 1300+ year old dispute to be understood. For example, one Iraqi leader this week was upset that the British were planning to pull out troops, suggesting that he had a worry about foreign invasion. And that foreign invasion would inevitably be Saudi Arabia with as many Sunni allies as it could muster intervening to protect the rapidly diminishing Sunni Arab minority in Iraq, and the Shiite Iranians intervening to counter this.
2.23.2007 8:40am
AppSocRes (mail):
Commenters seem to be losing sight of two basic aspects of Congress:

Congressmen -- even those on highly specialized committees -- very rarely have a detailed knowledge of the issues about which they purport to be knowledgable. But their staffs do.

These staffs are composed of specialists who usually outlast individual legislators. They provide knowledge and continuity of policy and usually guide an individual legislator's speeches, actions, and votes; at least within the broad range of options that that legislator's political values allow. Good legislators keep the folks at home happy and work closely with carefully chosen staff to deliberate, investigate, and legislate.

Second, I think a lot of the issues regarding voters electing representatives who are incompetent at bringing home anything but pork are taken care of by Joseph Schumpeters observation that representative democracy's most fundamental aspect is not the ability to choose good governments nor even governments that represent the electorate's wshes; rather the most important trait of representative democracy's is the ability of voters to get rid of a government once that government has thoroughly demonstrated its inadequacies.
2.23.2007 8:46am
rarango (mail):
The ABC test is basic, and could be answered correctly by almost anyone who lisstend to NPR (it pains me to say that) or reads the NYT (also pain because I am a card carrying member of the VRWC). But as Steve, Daniel H and Bruce Hayden point out implicitly in their comments, there is one heck of a lot more to know to attempt to understand the middle east and how American Policy can effect it. The ABC quiz is analogous to being able to count to ten and relying on that knowledge to solve calculus problems.
2.23.2007 8:49am
AppSocRes (mail):
Bruce Hayden: Kurds are not Sunni. Most Sunni regard them as heretics.

More generally, in the current Middle East, religion is often a cover for more basic ethnic and nationalist issues. The Persians -- Iranians -- have traditionally dominated that particular region of the world. In fact, it could be argued that Iran is one of the very few "real" nation-states in the Middle East. After a long period when Persian sovereignty and imperial ambition was thwarted by Russia, England, and then the US and its regional allies, Iran is re-asserting itself. This would occur whether the government was the current theocracy, the Shah's monarchy, or a liberal, representative democracy. In fact, if Iran were to evolvew into a democratic state, I would not be surprised if a democratically elected government were to push even more strongly for regional suporemacy than the current theocracy has been.
2.23.2007 9:02am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I don't see why U.S. congressmen should be fluent in the nuances of every tribal conflict out there.
It is much more than a tribal conflict, with maybe 100 million or so Shi'a on one side, and roughly 900 million Sunni on the other, but with the Shi'a dominating part of the heart of Islam, and most of the Sunnis living outside and around that.

I would suggest that the reason that this ethnic dispute is more important to us right now than what is going on in India is that it affects us a lot more, and has at least since the Iranians stormed our embassy in Tehran, and up through the bombing of the WTC, and ultimately, its destruction on 9/11/01. If the Indians start attacking us at that level in our homeland, then maybe their internal disputes will become important to us.

The MSM, etc. usually portray our problems with the Moslem world through the lens of a Moslem/Western (primarily Christian) dispute. But it is in reality a three way contest, with the Moslem world being roughtly split between (esp. Wahhabi) Sunni and Shi'a, and with the three sides playing the other two off against each other at times, and allying with one of the other parties against the other at others. And overall, it increasingly isn't about Sunni and Shi'a allying with each other against us, but one of them allying with us against the other.

But between the fall of the Shah, and the fall of Baghdad to our military, we really didn't have a way of allying with the Shi'a, and so inevitably found ourselves allied with the Sunni against our common enemy, the Shi'a in Tehran. Now though we find ourselves, despite our problems in Iraq right now, in a much more powerful position, allying both with the Shi'a dominated government of Iraq and the Wahhabi dominated government of Saudi Arabia.
2.23.2007 9:03am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
AppSocRes

I don't disagree with any of what you said there. Someone recently described Shi'a Islam as the result of imposing the stark religion of a bunch of desert nomads upon the much more sophisticated and cosmopolitan Persians. While the dispute is ostensibly about the succession from the Prophet, it can also be viewed as a conflict for influence between these two traditional cultural enemies living so close together for so many millenia in the Middle East.

And yes, the Persians have proudly been a major power in that part of the world for nearing three millenia now. Indeed, while Alexander could conquer Persia, the Romans really couldn't. Being relegated to a pawn in the "Great Game" of the Ninteenth Century was not easy to handle for them, with their proud history.

But I am not sure how assertive they would be if their current theocracy were replaced with a truly democratically elected government. Part of their assertiveness right now seems to result from the oft used ploy when facing a restive population of diverting their attention outside their country towards its putative enemies, and away from all the problems being faced internally. And, no surprise, Persian Pride is played on routinely in Iran for just this reason.

Which fits into my theory on why the Iranians are so willing to buck world opinion to get nuclear weapons - that their first two reasons are Persian Pride and to counter the Sunni (i.e. Pakistani) nuclear weapons. Israel is only a distant third excuse or reason, and that only because world Islamic leadership includes showing strong opposition to Israel.
2.23.2007 9:24am
Rachel (mail):
Too much knowledge about Sunni/Shiite stuff is probably worse than too little. A lot of experts believe that the two groups hate each other so much they'll never work together - and ignore all evidence to the contrary. Similarly, they think we can win one side's love by hurting the other side. I'd vastly prefer a Congressman who just punishes whichever group kills American soldiers, without any thought of long-term strategic consequences.
2.23.2007 9:29am
rarango (mail):
As some have alluded to, there is the whole issue of tribalism in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and the Sunni areas of Iraq. Larger older tribes of bedouin origin whose membership numbers in the 100s of thousands, like the al Turkis, the al Shammerys, al Sauds, al shalabis, al tikritis and probably a half dozen others. These add layers of fissures below the veneer of religious splits.
2.23.2007 9:41am
Cornellian (mail):
I thought requiring Congressmen to actually know anything was out of fashion as "elitist." Could education actually be back in vogue?
2.23.2007 9:44am
DanielH (mail):
"Bruce Hayden: Kurds are not Sunni. Most Sunni regard them as heretics."

AppSocRes, where did you get that impression from? The majority of Kurds are Sunnis. Most differences between Kurds and Arab Sunnis in Iraq are purely political. What religious differences there may be have more to do with Sufi traditionalism vs. Wahhabi revivalism. That doesn't really make either group more or less Sunni, though.
2.23.2007 9:48am
Rodger Lodger (mail):
I got 6 out of 8 -- can I be President?
2.23.2007 10:06am
Just Dropping By (mail):
"I'd vastly prefer a Congressman who just punishes whichever group kills American soldiers, without any thought of long-term strategic consequences."

You do realize that by that standard we should still be fighting a war with Britain, right?
2.23.2007 10:14am
SP:
"I don't see why U.S. congressmen should be fluent in the nuances of every tribal conflict out there."

Actually, this would be more like being minister to Louis XIV and not knowing whether or not the Netherlands was Protestant.
2.23.2007 10:23am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
So how about another Quiz:

What are the religious affiliations of the 6 leading '08 Presidential Candidates? No Googling!

Clinton
Obama
Edwards

Giuliani
McCain
Romney

And for extra credit - What is George Bush's religious affiliation?
2.23.2007 10:31am
SP:
Well, the first four are probably more or less agnostic. Actually I suspect Obama is an atheist. McCain and Bush, Christian. Romney, well if you don't know you will hear about it.
2.23.2007 10:45am
trotsky (mail):
Duncan,

If the Church of Christ members, the Methodists and the Mormons were mortaring each other's neighborhoods, the question might have more urgency.

Obama an athiest -- that's a good one.
2.23.2007 11:08am
eeyn524:
Clinton - Sunni
Obama - Sunni
Edwards - Sunni

Giuliani - Shiite
McCain - Sunni
Romney - Druze?
2.23.2007 11:11am
Jason J. (mail):
What disturbs me is that someone could serve on the Intelligence Committe for any nontrivial amount of time and not end up picking up the answers to these questions on the side.

How meaningful can Congressional oversight be if in the course of conducting it, Congressmen don't learn as much as you learn during the first week of a Freshman seminar or from reading the newspaper for a month?


Forget that -- you could learn the information on that quiz in about five minutes' worth of googling. It is very, very disturbing that the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee would not have been able to score 8 out of 8 on that quiz. I mean it is just mind-blowing to me.

I wonder if George W. Bush could pass it?
2.23.2007 11:58am
Adeez (mail):
"I wonder if George W. Bush could pass it?"

Considering that before the invasion of Iraq, he wasn't AWARE of the fact that the state was divided into three distinct groups, I seriously doubt it. Isn't it great he's in charge of the strongest fighting force ever known to man!
2.23.2007 12:05pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Adeez: Citation please.
2.23.2007 12:13pm
jallgor (mail):
Unfortunately, I suspect most Americans would fail this test. It saddens me in the same way I get upset when they tell me most Americans can't find Texas on a map. What is even worse is that you will find people with very strong opinions about our foreign policy in the middle east who would fail this test.
The fact that any member of Congress might not know these things is appalling.

Zork said "I don't see why U.S. congressmen should be fluent in the nuances of every tribal conflict out there."

AppSocRes said "Congressmen -- even those on highly specialized committees -- very rarely have a detailed knowledge of the issues about which they purport to be knowledgable. But their staffs do."

These statements are ridiculous. Nuances? Detailed Knowledge? These are the most basic of facts about the middle east. I learned the difference between Shiite and Sunni when I was 15 in a "World History Class." In order to not answer at least a majority of these questions correctly you have to have had your head in the sand for the last 5 years (if not the last 50). So please stop trying to justify the ignorance of our elected officials.
2.23.2007 1:02pm
Zork:
Ilya:

Name the prime minster of India, his religion, and what part of India's he's from.

If you said "Manmohan Singh," "Sikh," and "Punjab," then you win.

If you didn't, then you didn't know the most basic facts about the second-largest country in the world (soon to be the largest). It's like someone not knowing that Bill Clinton is a Protestant from Arkansas!

U.S. congressmen don't need to know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. It's not important. They need to know what their 650,000 constituents want and care about, and they don't care about some tribal -- or religious/tribal, if you prefer -- conflict on the other side of the planet.

The Sunni/Shiite difference only becomes a sine qua non to holding public office because members of our media decide it needs to be.

And why is that?
2.23.2007 1:12pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"U.S. congressmen don't need to know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. It's not important."

Ah.. right. Just like it wasn't important in 1933 to know what Hitler was up to, or for that matter that he was Chancellor of Germany and, lets say, not Jewish.
2.23.2007 1:26pm
Zork:
Reductio ad Hitlerum, I win!

U.S. congressmen do not need to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, Q.E.D.

Liberty, did "Manmohan Singh," "Sikh" and "Punjab" roll right off your tongue? I bet they did. It was "a very simple quiz," to quote someone famous.
2.23.2007 1:29pm
Zork:
Snark aside: Liberty, why is it more important for a U.S. congressman to know whether Moqtada al-Sadr is Sunni or Shiite than to know the name and religion of Manmohan Singh, leader of what is by far the world's largest democracy?
2.23.2007 1:32pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Zork, because India is a democracy. Congressmen have a duty to understand the enemy, not the ally. Part of their job is to ensure that the executive defends the nation - for that it is critical that they understand potential threats. It is not nearly so important to know about our allies -- though it is helpful if we need to call on them for favors.
2.23.2007 1:38pm
PaddyL (mail):
The better questions concern discerning the differences between Sunni and Shiite dogma and the knowledge about the unending civil war between these sects. However, these issues cannot be readily reduced into multiple choice questions. Also, it is essential to know about Wahhabbism and how it fits into the radical Islamist equation.
2.23.2007 1:44pm
Zork:
Liberty, that's just ad hoc reasoning. To use your example above, Hitler came to power in 1933 via a democratic vote, so, by your argument, a U.S. congressman wouldn't have needed to know much about him then, as most U.S. congressmen today probably couldn't tell you the name "Manmohan Singh".

I don't think we've gotten to the core of why Ilya feels that knowing things like whether Moqtada al-Sadr is a Shiite or a Sunni comprises part of a "very simple quiz," the failing of which should, in his opinion, disqualify a congressman from sitting on the House Intelligence Committee.

Ilya, should a congressman who doesn't know Manmohan Singh's name, religion, and are of origin also be disqualified from the Intel committee?
2.23.2007 1:51pm
H. Tuttle:
Shiite, Sunni. Sunni, shiite. It's too bad they both can't lose. If each has extremist madmen that paint us as the great enemy this discouse is like asking whether a serial killer suffers from X or Y mental disease. In the end, who cares? -- the important thing is to stop him.
2.23.2007 1:52pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Zork,

Potential threats. Maybe an argument can be made that Hitler didn't that threatening in 1933 -- I'm not sure I buy that but perhaps that argument can be made -- does India look threatening? How about Iran?

See, I think Iran looks threatening and the middle east in general seems like it could contain potential threats. Not so sure that India looks that way. That was the point of mentioning that its democratic - that it doesn't look like a threat.

Yes, true that Hitler came to power in a democracy, not at all clear that it still looked like a non-threatening democracy even in 1933, but lets push that ahead to 1939 if you want. Doesn't matter because its pretty clear that India doesn't look nearly as threatening as Iran - or am I missing something?
2.23.2007 1:59pm
Zork:
Liberty,

I don't feel threatened by Iraq or Iran. Neither has a nuclear bomb (unlike India), both have small populations compared to the U.S. (unlike India), and each has a far smaller Muslim population than India. And the only times Iraq or Iran have ever attacked U.S. forces have been in or near their countries, when it's us that has gone into their backyard, not vice versa. They'd both be happy to leave us alone if we'd leave them alone.

That being said, I'm still curious if you A) agree with Ilya that a congressman who does not get 8 out of 8 on this quiz should be excluded from sitting on the House Intel Committee, and B) agree with me that we should then devise several dozen similar simple quizzes for other important areas around the world (India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Southeast Asia, Africa) and similarly exclude congressmen who fail to score 8 out of 8 on those tests, as Ilya and you would.
2.23.2007 2:08pm
Zork:
In other words, why is the Sunni - Shiite quiz the important one to Ilya, and not, say, the India quiz? Anyone? Bueller?
2.23.2007 2:09pm
Blue OX (mail):
I'm getting pretty tired of this Shiite.
2.23.2007 2:18pm
Xanthippas (mail) (www):
No Congressman? If any person can't answer these questions correctly after five years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, then they're not entitled to express an opinion on our Middle Eastern policy.

Zork-the answer to your question is simple. It has nothing to do with anyone making arbitrary decisions as to what Congressmen or whoever should know. It is because we are war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you would probably only need to have picked up a paper once a week over the last five years to answer all of these questions correctly.
2.23.2007 2:18pm
Zork:
Xanthippas --

Could you get 8 out of 8 on a similar quiz about North Korea?
2.23.2007 2:25pm
SP:
I am confused. Are people here actually advocating that we should have stupid leaders?
2.23.2007 2:39pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Zork,
That quiz included the information about wars we are currently in and about al Qaeda who attacked us on our homeland. It wasn't just about Iran. All the groups named in the quiz are highly relevant to our national security.

I would be interested to hear why you think India is more critical to our current national security, other than the fact that its Muslim (as are many many other countries not listed in that quiz) and that it has had a nuclear bomb for a long time and is generally considered not a threat.

As for whether I think it should be mandatory for House Intel Committee members, absolutely. It should probably be mandatory to be a member of the House. Should congressmen also know about India and Africa? Yes, but not as much as those conflicts that we are currently dealing with. As for North Korea yes they should at least know the history of the deals we've made in the past decade or so, so that they have some understanding about how likely future deals are to work.

If we didn't spend 60+% of our budget and 95% of our time, campaigning and schmeal-dealing on social programs and pork, this might actually be a realistic thing to expect of congressmen.
2.23.2007 2:40pm
Zork:
SP:

I am questioning the wisdom of Ilya's claim that "No congressman should be allowed to join the Intelligence Committee...without first scoring a perfect 8 for 8 on this very simple quiz."

I have pointed out that similar 8-question quizzes could be made about India, China, Indonesia, Africa, Mexico, Southeast Asia, and that Ilya would not get 8 out of 8 on them, and that neither would most congressmen on the House Intel Committee.

And then I asked if the Sunni-Shiite quiz was the disqualifier, then why these other hypothetical quizzes on other important areas would not also be disqualifiers.

I await Ilya's answer.
2.23.2007 2:44pm
Zork:
Liberty:

"If we didn't spend 60+% of our budget and 95% of our time, campaigning and schmeal-dealing on social programs and pork, this might actually be a realistic thing to expect of congressmen."

This we agree on! :)
2.23.2007 2:45pm
Zork:
Liberty:

Al-Qaeda questions are fine, but the Hezbollah and Iran and Iraq questions -- these are not "very simple" to people who don't study Mideast politics closely. And again, if you think they are, then ask yourself why you didn't know the name -- just the *name* -- of the leader of the largest democracy in the world.

I know some desi-Americans who would think Ilya was laughably ignorant for not knowing Manmohan Singh's name and religion (assuming he didn't). They'd say -- "How can you not know the name and religion of the leader of the second largest country in the world? You're not even minimally qualified to comment on world affairs."

And I know an Indonesian guy who'd say "Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, and Ilya can't (again, I'm assuming -- correct me if you knew these, Ilya, Liberty, etc.) even name their prime minister and where in the country he's from? He's not even minimally qualified to comment on world affairs..."

See? We all have ethnocentric views of the world, and can't believe *everyone* doesn't share our knowledge of the part of the world we happen to be most ethnically attached to.

Quick -- who's the president of China? And before him? Wow, you're not even minimally qualified to...etc etc.
2.23.2007 2:55pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Apologies to Daniel Hayden and thanks to BruceH for correcting me. Kurds are Sunni, albeit from a very liberal sect (the same from which derive the mystically oriented Sufis). However, Wahabis regard Kurds as extreme backsliders. (A feeble excuse for my mistake: a mental slip confusing Druze and Kurd. Unforgivable, but it happens in late middle age.)

I do want to reiterate, that Congressmen literally do not have time to be well-informed on many issues. Even chairs of important committees, hold positions on other committees. Seating on each committee requires detailed knowledge of the legal, political, economic, and other aspects of often arcane areas. No one person can be current on all of this. The result is that Congressmen have to rely absolutely on their staffs for knowledge, positioning on issues, and legislative strategy.

On four occassions I have given expert opinions to the office of a Congressman/Senator. In all cases I briefed staff, not their employer. I'd be curious to learn if any commenters have had a different experience.
2.23.2007 2:57pm
ctw (mail):
I second those arguing that all that's required to answer the questions is 1) knowing a few facts that couldn't be missed by any reasonably intellectually curious person paying minimal attention to the nightly news and 2) having a minimal facility at logical inference .

curiosity and logic are the critical aspects, not the facts per se (nor prof somin's "8 of 8" qualification, which was obviously a throw-away aside). we are all inevitably ignorant of most things, but are willful ignorance of the major political issue of the day and inability to reason acceptable in our political leaders? (or more accurately, should they be?)

- charles
2.23.2007 2:57pm
jallgor (mail):
Zork,
I think the issue is what you consider to be an "easy quiz." I did a search on google news for Manmohan Singh and got about 5,500 hits. I did the same for Al Sadr and about 14,500. Now if you edited those results for news eminating from US publciations I imagine the difference would be even greater. The bottom line is one of those people is very famous (infamous?) in the U.S. and one is not. One of them is probably mentioned in at least one national paper almost every day, the other is not. So your "easy" quiz analogy just doesn't hold up.
I personally got an 8 out of 8 on the quiz but I am sorry to say that I could not answer 2 of your India questions (I did remember that he was Sikh). Your own argument betrays the point you are trying to make. You are asking about the President of India because you suspect that most people can't name him. Therefore, how easy is the quiz you are proposing?
Also, doesn't China have Premiers insted of Presidents?
2.23.2007 3:21pm
Jeek:
Shiite, Sunni. Sunni, shiite. It's too bad they both can't lose.

They can, and they will, when we withdraw from Iraq and they go after each other like two scorpions in a bottle.

the only times Iraq or Iran have ever attacked U.S. forces have been in or near their countries, when it's us that has gone into their backyard, not vice versa.

Well gee, the only time Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union ever attacked US forces was near their countries, with us in their backyards, so obviously they weren't a threat to the US either.
2.23.2007 3:24pm
glangston (mail):
I've read Vali Nasr's The Shia Revival several Friedman books, The Pentagon's New Map by Barnett and a few recommended books on insurgency warfare and it's still a bit of a challenge to keep it all sorted out. I do think if you serve on the Committee mentioned it should be fairly well sorted out in your mind who these groups are and how they ally themselves. If not they should take the advice of all the sport heroes out there and learn to focus.
2.23.2007 3:29pm
BobNSF (mail):

U.S. congressmen don't need to know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. It's not important. They need to know what their 650,000 constituents want and care about, and they don't care about some tribal -- or religious/tribal, if you prefer -- conflict on the other side of the planet.


I suspect the constituents do care about the price of gasoline. It's the Congressman's job to realize that there's a connection between the two subjects.

A great deal of respect was once paid to wisdom and knowledge. Today, not so much.
2.23.2007 3:31pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
llamasex sez: 'If AlQeada is Sunni, and there camps are all in Pakistan now what do you think they are?'

I don't think, I know they are Ismailis, which are a kind of Shia. They are at least as different from Iranian Shia as Episcopalians from Southern Baptists, so it's better to think of them as Ismailis.

So Professor Somen got only 7 of 8 right, and nobody here is impressing me very much about how much they know about Islam, with the exception of Steve.
2.23.2007 3:40pm
ctw (mail):
"they are all Ismailis"

it's a bit unclear whether by "they" you mean al-qaeda (which was the quiz question) or pakistanis. I infer (possibly incorrectly) from a quick google search that if you mean the former, you're doing some subtle interpreting, not stating a simple fact. if you mean the latter, it's doubly irrelevant. care to elaborate?

also, note that the point here isn't that anyone is or isn't an expert in islam but whether politicos responsible for our involvement in the ME should know some basics about it's religious divisions. we might very well be impressed by your knowledge of sunni and shi'a sects, but so what? the issue at hand is the distinction between sunni-majority and shi'a-majority countries.

- charles
2.23.2007 4:29pm
josh:
Ilya Somin said: "It is if the failure is caused by structure flaws in government as an institution - flaws that make it inferior to free markets and civil society."

Can that be right? Would the "free markets and civil society" do better on the quiz? I'd wager that the public would do worse than anyone on the Intell Committee or proposed for it.

Also, could you comment on whether you honestly believe that GWB (in 1999) would have passed this quiz and whether failure should have disqualified him from becoming president? If not, why not?
2.23.2007 4:31pm
Zork:
Jallgor wrote:

"You are asking about the President of India because you suspect that most people can't name him. Therefore, how easy is the quiz you are proposing?"

But why can't people name him? You say it's because there are fewer news stories about him in the US press than there are about Moqtada al-Sadr, and I agree. Now, why is that the case? You'd think the leader of the 2nd largest country in the world, sixth biggest economy, largest democracy, nuclear power, etc. would have his name well-known in the US press, and a cleric from Iraq (pop: 25 million) would not be as well known.

So, why is this the case with the US press?
2.23.2007 4:38pm
ctw (mail):
"You'd think the leader of the 2nd largest country in the world ... would have his name well-known in the US press, and a cleric from Iraq ... would not ..."

but only if you completely misunderstood the function of the press. they are called "news"papers and "news" channels rather than "educational" for a reason. death is news (see anna nicole smith), heading a nation isn't necessarily. eg, I try to stay relatively well-informed on the major issues du jour, but altho I was aware of mr harper's election at the time, I didn't remember his name (tnx, google) because canada isn't currently involved in any - except perhaps the despicable Arar saga, certainly unfamiliar to >>95% of the US population.

all of which is still irrelevant to the question of whether those responsible for decisions on the major issue facing the US should have at least a primitive understanding of it's backdrop. phrased that way, do you really answer "no"?

-charles
2.23.2007 6:00pm
Warmongering Lunatic:
Hmm, let's see, what's more important:

1) Knowledge about a region where the confilcts have resulted in massive economic turmoil in the U.S., repeatedly provoked the direct military involvment of the United States, resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans, and in which America currently has tens of thousands of soldiers.

2) Knowledge about a country where the conflicts have never been of great economic importance to the United States nor have resulted in the deaths of any large number of Americans.

Zork insists that the answer is #2, or at least that #2 is of the same order of magnitude as #1.

Zork is clearly stumbling around in the dark. Hopefully, he'll be enlightened before he's eaten by a grue.
2.23.2007 6:22pm
_:
As those responsible for our nation's foreign policy, of course its important for politicians to have a basic understanding of the divide behind middle eastern conflicts. To argue otherwise is ridiculous.
2.23.2007 7:08pm
Zork:
"but only if you completely misunderstood the function of the press."

Sadly, I have come to understand it all too well in recent years.
2.23.2007 7:34pm
ys:

And I know an Indonesian guy who'd say "Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, and Ilya can't (again, I'm assuming -- correct me if you knew these, Ilya, Liberty, etc.) even name their prime minister and where in the country he's from? He's not even minimally qualified to comment on world affairs..."


To Zork: with all due respect, your Indonesian friend would be asking a trick question, since Indonesia has no prime minister. I do happen to know the name of the president, but not his region of origin. Being a bit more informed than maybe an average person I assumed that he was not from Aceh or East Timor (easily confirmed), but that is irrelevant to the main topic of discussion, which is the level of relevancy of knowledge to the policy priorities over which one has supervision, as members of the Intel committee do.
Best regards
2.23.2007 8:16pm
Can't find a good name:
Duncan Frissell: Off the top of my head, no Googling: Hillary's a Methodist, Obama's United Church of Christ, Edwards I'm not 100% sure but think he's a Methodist, Giuliani's a Catholic, McCain I'm not sure but think he's Episcopalian and Romney's a Mormon. George W. Bush is a Methodist too.

I do think that the Sunni-Shiite quiz is one that members of the Intelligence Committee particularly ought to know the answers to because it's relevant to a war that the U.S. is currently involved in.
2.23.2007 9:21pm
Elais:
Zork,

You seem to be annoyed that others on this blog expect our Congresscritters to know about the difference between Shiite and Sunni. You then turn around and claim that if they are required to know that they should also possess a vast encylopedia of knowledge of every single country/region of the world and the various social and political elements within them.

I don't expect my Congressman to be an expert on everything, but he should at least bone up on the issue of the day, month, or year before hand. Ignorance is not a blessing. Is that too much to ask? For a rep to at least surf Wikipedia? They are capable of thinking, aren't they?

Having knowledge of the difference between Shiite/Sunni is important prior to the Iraq war and is necessary knowledge NOW. If there was trouble in other regions, Africa, India etc. I would expect our reps to at least make themselves familiar with the background before making decisions that would affect US policy towards those regions.
2.23.2007 11:02pm
crane (mail):

Quick -- who's the president of China? And before him? Wow, you're not even minimally qualified to...etc etc.


Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, if I remember correctly. But I don't think just knowing names is nearly as useful as knowing factions, alliances, and likely points of conflict, which is really what this whole Sunni-Shiite thing is about.
2.23.2007 11:24pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Zork,

First, even assuming your claim that knowledge of India should be as important as knowledge of these Muslim facts is true, and even assuming the media is wrong to pay more attention to the latter than the former, the fact remains that they do pay far more attention to the latter than the former. Therefore, for a Congressman not to know these facts about Islam shows not only ignorance about what he "should" know in some abstract sense, but also shows that he doesn't even watch television news, let alone read the newspaper. Someone who doesn't read the newspaper isn't fit to oversee our foreign policy.

Second, why should the number of people in a country determine how important it is to us? I'm not sure whether you're trying to be argumentative or not when you keep bringing this up. The part of India where the prime minister is from is irrelevant to our foreign policy. It may be of interest to trivia buffs, but it doesn't affect anything significant. Whereas the divisions in the Middle East not only affect our foreign policy in general, but a war we are involved in right now.
2.24.2007 12:06am
W.D.:
Kleiman has it right in this instance. This is yet another case of the libertarian solution in search of a problem. When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Something wrong with the government? Must be because of the "size and scope" of government itself, not the numskulls in it.

However desirable it might be in its own right, it is fantasy to assume that if there were no "pork" (and the perverse incentives it creates), the electorate would automatically value foreign-policy smarts more than they do now. If all pork magically disappeared tomorrow, politicians would just find some political currency by which to pander to their constituents, and impressing them with a deep understanding of Islam is not a likely cut it, at least at this point in time.

The solution to having ignorant representatives (and executives) is simply to elect better ones. How you get that result is tricky of course...but probably no where near as tricky as eliminating "pork" or otherwise radically trimming the size of government. It would help if knowledgeable, smart candidates weren't widely ridiculed in the media (and on blogs of course) as wonky know-it-alls who you'd never want to invite over for a beer. Perhaps a few more years of blood-n-treasure spent policing a civil war between the two sects and Americans will take a greater interest in having leaders who know something about the topic (and other global affairs as well). We can only hope.
2.24.2007 1:46am
David M. Nieporent (www):
The solution to having ignorant representatives (and executives) is simply to elect better ones. How you get that result is tricky of course
Gee, you think? I note that neither you nor Kleiman offer any proposals for accomplishing that.

"Get better people in government" is the liberal hammer to every nail. No matter how badly the government screws up, the hypothetical world in which good people are put in charge of government is always the solution. No matter how fanciful that notion is, no matter how few ideas they have for getting there, they can't accept the fact that the government itself is the problem. Unlike our founding fathers, the idea of creating institutions that don't depend on the people in power doesn't enter their heads. No, it's just attack conservatives and say, "If we were in power, this wouldn't happen." That itself may (sometimes) be a good strategy for winning elections, but it's not a good strategy for solving the problem.

Look, reducing the size and scope of government isn't going to get the public to suddenly realize, "Hey, what we really want is a brilliant academic who studies foreign policy running the government." But if all the government does is foreign policy, then people whose main skill is handing out pork won't have any incentive to run for government. You need to change incentives, not just pray for better people to spontaneously appear.
2.24.2007 2:25am
Xanthippas (mail) (www):
Zork, you defend the indefensible by directing attention elsewhere. But you missed the point of my comment. While I agree that North Korea is a critical issue, and have said so time and time again on my blog and in talking to people I know, we haven't been at war there for the last several years. Coverage in the papers, while extensive, is hardly the saturation coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan that's been in the papers since we invaded both countries. And frankly the questions weren't that hard to anyone who's followed the conflict, not even as closely as a blogger, but as someone who reads the paper on a semi-regular basis. And given that the questions weren't that hard, I repeat my point that if you cannot answer all or most of them correctly, then you really are too ignorant of the conflict to offer an informed opinion, and should educate yourself more.

Now, if you asked me 8 questions about North Korea that were fairly basic, and in line with what basic news stories have covered over the last few years, and I failed to answer them correctly, I would say exactly the same thing. But again the critical difference is the amount of coverage.
2.24.2007 5:55pm
Cal Lanier (mail) (www):
Ths Sunnis, culminating in the rule of Saddam Hussein, have controlled the majority Shi'a there for hundreds of years....But now, thanks to the intervention of the U.S. in particular, the Shi'a in Iraq have control over their own destiny, and working with the anti-Wahhabi Kurdish Sunnis, completely dominate the popularly elected government there.

Finally, all is right with the Shi'a world. They never just wanted a democracy. They just wanted the tyranny that was rightfully theirs. They had the numbers, dammit!
2.25.2007 1:46am
Enoch:
"Hey, what we really want is a brilliant academic who studies foreign policy running the government."

When we tried a brilliant academic, it didn't work out so well...
2.25.2007 10:20am
Toby:
"You'd think the leader of the 2nd largest country in the world ... would have his name well-known in the US press, and a cleric from Iraq ... would not ..."

In a proper society, Government leaders are relatively trivial functionaries. You do not need to know them to work with the country. In societies with a leviathan state, Government leaders are the only peole that matter. To work with them you must line up with all the other supplicants.

An almost precise illustration of this could be seen by looking at the value assigned by each SCountry in question using the only universal information gauge we have.

What Salary does the president of the US have relative to non-governmental leaders? What totoal percentage of the states resoureces is controlled by his inner circle? Ask the same question for India - it is similar to the US. Now ask for one of the Countries of the Middle East, say anyone other than Israel or Egypt? How about for Uganda?

Quite simply, out-sourcing to India does not involve meeting with the president or his cabinet. This is good, and a sign that India is a relatively reliable partner. Out-Sourcing to China probably involves one meeting, at least, with Red Army officials. You cannot do any significant business in Saudi Arabia, or in the Sheikdoms, without meeting with members of the ruler's family.

Which model are you espousing...
2.25.2007 1:23pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
It is not necessary "to study the Middle East closely" to answer the quiz correctly. The quiz tests for a bare minimum of knowledge about one aspect of the Middle East, one which has been discussed in the press with great frequency. Answering the test correctly is not evidence of sufficient knowledge, just as $10 is not enough to buy a diamond ring. But someone who doesn't have even $10 certainly can't buy diamond rings, and someone who can't even answer this test is grossly ignorant and thus incompetent to exercise authority in the area: e.g. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
2.25.2007 11:35pm
abb3w:
I'd say it's not quite so critical that a congresscritter be able to get 8/8 on the quiz before joining the committee, as they be able to get an 8/8 by the morning after they join the committee. It's not so important that our leaders are knowledgeable beforehand as that they can learn quickly; the latter condition facilitates greater adaptability to potentially dynamic conditions. The only thing that can get you in bigger trouble faster than what you don't know is what you do know... that's wrong.
2.27.2007 2:27pm