From the Times’ second most e-mailed story of the past several days (behind something on the arcane and mildly distressing subject of “preschool puberty”):
Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.
“Do I?” she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. “You know, I should.” She took a stab at it: “It’s a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it’s the Sunnis who’re more radical than the Shia.”
Did she know which branch Al Qaeda’s leaders follow?
“Al Qaeda is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni,” she replied. “I may be wrong, but I think that’s right.”
Did she think that it was important, I asked, for members of Congress charged with oversight of the intelligence agencies, to know the answer to such questions, so they can cut through officials’ puffery when they came up to the Hill?
“Oh, I think it’s very important,” said Ms. Davis, “because Al Qaeda’s whole reason for being is based on their beliefs. And you’ve got to understand, and to know your enemy.”
I’m teaching a course on the US and the Middle East this semester, and two of the first books we examined — James Bill’s Eagle and the Lion and William Quandt’s Peace Process — make the case that failures of US policy in Iran and Israel/Palestine are attributable in no small part to the lack of rudimentary historical, sociological and cultural knowledge among policymakers. In Iran, for example, the Johnson and Nixon administrations were so entranced by the power of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi that they failed to appreciate the evolving frustrations of students, the middle classes and especially the religious stratum of Iranian society; Carter’s Iranian “experts” were so insensate as to utterly miss the signs (identified by actual experts who were not in the policy loop) that the Pahlavi regime was on the verge of collapse in 1977. In the context of the post-1967 “peace process,” to cite one other example, the Reagan and first Bush administrations displayed almost complete indifference to the history of the Iraeli-Palestinian conflict, believing it was irrelevant to the pursuit of a final compromise; Richard Haass, an “expert” who directed Middle East affairs on Bush’s National Security Council, frequently cited Joan Peters’ fraudulent From Time Immemorial as an important source of insight into the problem.
It goes on like this. As Yglesias pointed out last week, the start of the cold war gave genuinely knowledgeable people like George Kennan the space to develop policy:
One might have expected something similar to happen after 9/11, but it didn’t, overwhelmingly because what longtime students of the Middle East had to say wasn’t convenient for the pre-existing political agendas of America’s bipartisan national security elite. Instead of getting analyses representing the range of views actually existing in the field, we got Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, two people ready to tell policymakers what they wanted to hear.
Yglesias neglects to mention that within five years Kennan’s advice regarding “containment” was transformed into actual national security policies that were considerably more expansive, ideological and militaristic than what Kennan himself envisioned — which only underscores the obvious point that even well-intentioned “expertise” can only accomplish so much. Moreover, if the point of such knowledge — as Rep. Davis so gracelessly put it — is merely to “know your enemy” (assuming as she apparently does that all Sunnis constitute the enemy) and to assure even greater degrees of domination, it’s tempting (if ultimately cynical) to root for the triumph of ignorance.
Nevertheless, the contempt of this administration for basic information about the world is astonishing.
(…dammit… first link fixed…..)