Foreign Policy Mix-Up

I agree with some foreign-policy hawks that our country needs to get more real about the threat we face from radical Islamists. Though I am a Democrat, I have given the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt, not because I “agree” with them, but because the Constitution gives them the burden of responsibilty to protect this country, and I believe that there can only be so much political interference with their carrying-out of this responsibility before it becomes damaging to the country. The childishness, cliquishness, hypocrisy and naked partisanship of the Administration’s critics has drained much of whatever ideological sympathy I might have started with. I mean, my God, even the most committed liberals must get bored with the constant “Bushitler asshole” rants — although the evidence is they can’t get enough of it.

All that being said: This is disgraceful, unacceptable and makes we want to impeach all of them:

FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”

A “gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?

After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants? In a remotely similar but far more lethal vein, the 1,400-year Sunni-Shiite rivalry is playing out in the streets of Baghdad, raising the specter of a breakup of Iraq into antagonistic states, one backed by Shiite Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

Just to cut to the chase for those who can’t keep it straight: Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, and his #2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is from Egypt. These are Sunni states. Al Queda is a Sunni organization.  The Taliban?  Sunni.  Hezbollah, on the other hand, is Shiite.  The Ayatollah Khomeini?  A Shiite.

And, it goes without saying, there are millions of Sunnis and Shiites who don’t belong to terrorist organizations.  Neither denomination is inherently “more radical.”  There are far more Sunnis than Shiites, by a factor greater than 5 to 1. The origin of the split was the Shiites belief that only the descendents of Ali, Muhammed’s son-in-law, can lead the Muslim people.  But the split occured at the dawn of Islam, and at this point the differences are more the result of how the two sects developed historically over the succeeding 1,400 years.

A complete collapse in Iraq could provide a haven for Al Qaeda operatives within striking distance of Israel, even Europe. And the nature of the threat from Iran, a potential nuclear power with protégés in the Gulf states, northern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, is entirely different from that of Al Qaeda. It seems silly to have to argue that officials responsible for counterterrorism should be able to recognize opportunities for pitting these rivals against each other.

But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?

The author of this op-ed, Jeff Stein, who writes for Congressional Quarterly, makes a little game out of asking senior FBI officials and members of Congress if they know anything about the Shi’a and the Sunnis, and which forces are allied with which sects. Here’s an example:

At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the (FBI’s) new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. “Yes, sure, it’s right to know the difference,” he said. “It’s important to know who your targets are.”

That was a big advance over 2005. So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. “The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following,” he said. “And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following.”

O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran — Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. “Iran and Hezbollah,” I prompted. “Which are they?”

He took a stab: “Sunni.”


Al Qaeda? “Sunni.”


I think I could make a lot of money in Washington if I just printed out a palm-sized card that briefly explained the difference between the two denominations, how they started, and which countries and organizations are associated with each one. I’m sure I could sell quite a few to the Democrats who are about to take over the key committees. They must be a little glad that it’s Republican officials whose stupidity is being exposed. This gives them a little time to bone up.

fainted.jpgThe ignorance — and arrogance defense of such ignorance — is particularly galling at a time when we are fighting a war in Iraq, a country whose primary characteristic is that it contains large populations of both Shiites and Sunnis. If you can’t keep straight which group is closer to Iran, vs. which group is supported by Al Queda…

(I’m sorry, I just fainted.)


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