I read this IHT Op-Ed by Jeff Stein last October with a mixture of sad resignation and sighing wonderment, thinking to myself that it's no wonder American foreign policy in the Middle East is so often so wrongheaded and obviously stupid. After all, if US counterterrorism officials and congressmen don't know answers to such basic questions as the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, or even to which sects Al-Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah belong, how can they make informed decisions about issues that are based on underlying differences between the region's actors?
So I have to say that while I'm not surprised, I am certainly disappointed to see that the newly appointed Democratic intelligence chairman is equally uninformed (via Ezra):
...like a number of his colleagues and top counterterrorism officials that I've interviewed over the past several months, Reyes can't answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East.
It begs the question, of course: How can the Intelligence Committee do effective oversight of U.S. spy agencies when its leaders don't know basics about the battlefield?
...Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.
We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism's major players.
To me, it's like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who's on what side?
The dialogue went like this:
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.
...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?"
"Pocito," I said -- a little.
"Pocito?!" He laughed again.
"Go ahead," I said, talk to me about Sunnis and Shia in Spanish.
Reyes: "Well, I, uh...."
Stein goes on to tell us how the woeful ignorance of the region goes all the way from the top of the chain of command to those on the ground -- the employees of the embassy in Baghdad. It seems that of all the Americans at the embassy in Iraq, there are only six fluent Arabic speakers and two dozen who have some familiarity with the language. This is out of over a thousand employees.
There is definitely a dearth of specialists of the region and speakers of its languages. And those in charge don't seem very concerned about it, since according to the Department of Defense, between 1993 and 2003, 55 Arabic speakers and 9 Farsi speakers have been fired in accordance with the US military's policy of "Don't ask, Don't tell."
The 9/11 commission report decried the lack of Arabic speakers, a situation that has led to a huge backlog of untranslated documents in the government's counterterrorism efforts. It seems not only disheartening but disconcerting that ideological issues such as one's sexual orientation would trump national security concerns.
So while I'm glad to see that some of those who pushed the most ferociously for war in Iraq will no longer be in a position to decide foreign policy in the region, I'm afraid that their Democratic counterparts aren't any more qualified to make such important decisions.