Monday, December 11, 2006

Reyes for President?

Apparently the in-coming (Democratic) head of the House Intel committee does n't know that Al Qaeda is primarily Sunni. He also appears not to know a great deal about the inner workings of Hezbollah.

Big frickin deal. Good for him. This kind of knowledge is largely irrelevant to his role in Congress. The Intelligence Committe is primarily concerned with oversight and crafting authorizing legislation. One does n't need an encyclopedic knowledge of the various flavors of Islamic thought and the nuanced and finely wrought doctrinal distinctions between them to be effective at oversight, or crafting intelligence legislation.

15 comments:

Orrin Johnson said...

Strictly construed, that's right. But his position will give him additional clout when it comes to making policies based on who is the bigger threat. It also doesn't bode well for the efficacy of a Congress determined to be more involved in the day-to-day of killing badguys.

Sunni v. Shi'ite is the primary keys to understanding the causes of ME conflict, and (more importantly) crafting effective anti-terror policy. No where is that more crucial that in Iraq.

My optimism is on life support.

Juvenal said...

Was your optimism on life support when we voted in a President who referred to the inhabitants of Greece as "Grecians", who did n't know who the leaders of India, Pakistan, Chechnya and Taiwan were?

Why does someone on the Intelligence committee need to understand the exquisite differences between Shia and Sunni? Does the committee broker peace negotiations? Does it oversee diplomatic efforts? Does it make determinations, as you put it, about the "day-to-day killing of badguys"? No. Its members write legislation that enables (or dis-enables) the collection of intelligence, and they oversee the intelligence agencies. They don't need some kind of Solomonic understanding of the roots of internecine conflict in the Islamic world (and while we're at it, what are the doctrinal differences between the Shia and Sunni anyway -- do you know without having to check a source? Once you check do you know enough? You probably do, and so will Reyes) to provide oversight and to craft legislation.

If this were a Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committe, I suspect your ire would have been directed, not at the member in question, but at the liberal media :-)

Orrin Johnson said...

Since neither Greece, India, Pakistan, Chechnya, or Taiwan had or have founding charters which call specifically for our destruction, you'll forgive me if I'm less worried (although still irritated) by lack of instant recall or bad pronunciation on those places prior to 9/11.

On the other hand, not having the most basic grasp of Hezbollah or the Sunni/Shi'ite dynamic is like appointing an Intel Committee chair in 1943 who couldn't tell the difference between Germans and Poles.

With the power of the purse, the committe will be instrumental in setting priorities on who is to be watched, and therefore, who is to attacked, interdicted, or approached as potential allies. So yes - Reyes WILL help "oversee diplomatic efforts[,... and] make determinations, as you put it, about the 'day-to-day killing of badguys'?"

Besides - this wasn't just some off the cuff firebomb at a press conference - it was a scheduled sit-down interview for which Reyes had time to prepare. And if Reyes doesn't ALSO understand that the APPEARANCE of his grasp or lack thereof of basic, basic knowledge will make a substantial impression on our enemies, he doesn't understand that part of good intel is good COUNTER-intel.

If it were a Republican, I'd be just as critical. In fact, to the extent that Republicans have failed to do THEIR homeowrk, they're no better. It all points to a desire by the politicians to just to put our heads back in the sand, turn tail, and hope our enemies simply ignore us if we ignore them - at least until the next election cycle.

My optimism is inversly proportional to the isolationist tendencies and short-sightedness of politicians involved with national security.

Juvenal said...

"With the power of the purse, the committe will be instrumental in setting priorities on who is to be watched, and therefore, who is to attacked, interdicted, or approached as potential allies. So yes - Reyes WILL help "oversee diplomatic efforts[,... and] make determinations, as you put it, about the 'day-to-day killing of badguys'?""

By that line of argument the chairman of the appropriations committee oversees war, diplomatic efforts, educational curricula, quality of the drinking water, quality standards for latex contraceptives and every other endeavor known to man. And as a result should be well versed in the minutiae related to all of them. I ain't buying it.

So what does a "basic" grasp of the Shia / Sunni dynamic entail? That there are Sunni and Shia and they don't like each other? That they are dominant in different parts of the globe? Big whoop, he certainly already knows that. How detailed does his knowledge of the Shia / Sunni doctrinal differences have to be to pass muster? If its anything beyond just knowing that they're conflicting Islamic sects, then I'm afraid most people in the govt. (including the president) are going to flunk that test.

Plus, if it ever becomes essential (in this wierd universe of intelligence oversight that you posit) for him to become an expert on the Shia / Sunni divide, he can get briefed. You'd rather have someone with judgment and a sound temperament than someone who knows enough to make the briefers irrelevant.

PubliusRex said...

I agree that Congress should/does have little role in crafting foreign policy. Their enumerated legislative powers simply don't require them to be foreign policy wonks.

But I don't think it would be too much to ask that he have some clue as to the difference between Shiites and Sunnis. Seems to me that's middle school social studies. Apparently he didn't take the UW Ethnic Studies minor in Diversity.

In fact, I'm stunned he doesn't know more - doesn't he realize with the position he's stepping up to he'll have to be a huge religion of peace apologist?

derek said...

According to Amb. Peter Galbraith, President Bush was unaware that there were different sects of Islam in Iraq two months before the invasion of the country.

I'm surprised I missed your outrage at his inability to know the difference.

Anonymous said...

They're all pathetic! This isn't about Orrin. This is about guys hoping to hold positions of leadership in the country who haven't bothered to educate themselves on the key issues of the day.

Cato said...

It is alarming to me that any member of Congress doesn't know who's who in the Muslim world. The doctrinal differences between Shi'a and Sunni don't matter much, but which sect various actors belong to is absolutely crucial, because actors often align with each other based on the distinction. I don't think I'm unreasonable to desire that Congressional leaders know as much about foreign affairs as I do. It's embarrassing that they don't. I've been equally embarrassed by the President, if that'll innoculate me from the sniping. I think off-the-cuff, kept-in-the-head knowledge of these important geopolitical facts is important. And I think it is more important for the President and the Intelligence committee than it is for the GovOps or Washington DC committees.

Juvenal said...

Cato, why should members of Congress be well versed in the nuances of intra-mural differences in Islam? Members of the Senate, yes, they have a large role to play (via advise and consent) in foreign affairs. But why on earth must a member of the house have this knowledge? To impress at cocktail parties? In case they're ever on Jeopardy? To avoid the unspeakable sin of knowing less than some of their well informed constituents? As Publius said, foreign affairs is the domain of the executive, members of the House have (and should have) little influence on foreign affairs. I'd rather that some of them on the House Ways and Means Committee had a basic grasp of economics for instance.

Cato said...

I think you are making the Sunni/Shi'a distinction seem less important than it is when you call it a "nuance". It is as central to the situation in the Middle East as the distinction between Catholics and Protestants is to the situation in Northern Ireland. I expect representatives to know that the IRA is Catholic and Unionists are Protestant as well. It isn't a nuance, it's common knowledge, at least among the educated.

Much better to have high expectations of one's leaders and occasionally be disappointed than to have low expectations and continue to elect leaders who justify them.

Orrin Johnson said...

Derek, you will, of course, forgive me if I take the hearsay of a partisan anti-war Democrat with a book to peddle less seriously than you do. But assume for the moment that you're correct. An underestimation of the depth (and foreign influence behind) the sectarian rifts in Iraq is one of the major causes of our problems there. Doesn't it bother you that of all the Democrats in the House, Pelosi made her picks based more on seniority than expertise? (You will, of course, recall that one of Newt Gingrich's reforms was to elimiate seniority as the prime mover of committe chair assignments...)

I agree, Cato. It is true that deep nuanced detail knowledge is unecessary, but knowing enough to know when you're being BSed by the intel services - which most people agree need more supervision - is necessary to fulfilling the Dem campaign promises. If you rely completely and totally on what the organization you're overseeing to give you the information you need to oversee them, you cannot do your job.

You don't need to be a subject matter expert. You don't need to gather your own intel on your own time. You do need to know more than the average high schooler in a current affairs class.

And while I also agree that the executive has primary and near exclusive power over foreign affairs, I do want the people who make decisions on who and what gets funded to also have more than mere passing knowledge of the threats we face.

Derek said...

Since I finished my last exam today and am now officially on vacation Orrin, I'll forgive you for not giving any evidence which contradicts your viewpoint any creedance. :)

For the record, I find the absolute lack of understanding of world politics at the highest levels of government to be absolutely mindboggling. Perhaps they should spend less time complaining about having to work Monday afternoons, and spend more time trying to understand what's going on around the world.

People say the schools are broken. This is just further proof that the broken system goes well beyond the schoolaged...

PubliusRex said...

I'm not surprised Bush didn't know. It's not like he invented the internet or anything.

PubliusRex said...

By the way Derek, chalk this up as reason #1001 why government doesn't work.

How anyone could think of turning our entire healthcare system to these buffoons is beyond me.

Orrin Johnson said...

If Bush had the same type of sit down interview as Reyes', and similar ignorance tumbled out of his mouth, I would be similarly outraged. Derek, your evidence is NOT even close to that. Weight matters, especially in a world where the media is so overwhelmingly hostile to the Bush administration such that they can no longer be trusted. If Reyes' ignorance would have been reported in an Ann Coulter book as a "I heard this once," I wouldn't take it seriously, either. Conflating the two is fallacious. But considering the brain drain of finals, I'll forgive you for not knowing the difference.

But even with that, I didn't ignore anything. I said, "assume you're right" - this Reyes thing does not point to an opposition who can improve the situation by holding the other party accountable. And as much as I disagree with the Democrats on most things, I was at LEAST looking forward to THAT advantage of their ascendence. As it is, this points to the worst of both worlds - hence my waning optimism.

Publius is right, though. These are the people to whom liberals want to turn over every aspect of our lives - hiring and firing decisions, pensions, medical decisions (except abortions for 13 year olds), etc. Scary.