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October 17, 2006


I once met a woman who didn't know the sun was a star like other stars in the sky. She thought it was its own separate category of thing. (In her defense, she'd also grown up in a family which owned a llama and let it come inside the house and roam around.) (All of this is true.)

Now, imagine the U.S. government was filled with people obsessed with blowing up the sun. Then, one day we wake up and read in the paper this woman was now Chief Astronomer of the United States.

Would she have become Chief Astronomer in spite of being unbelievably ignorant about the sun? Or would she have become Chief Astronomer because she was?

Okay. Let's ask a similar question about the people running America:

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?"

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."

The article finds the same spectacular ignorance on the part of Terry Everett, vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence. Also, the chief of the FBI's new national security branch doesn't know Iran and Hezbollah are mostly Shia rather than Sunni.

How did these people rise to their positions? Well, they're part of a government run by people who want to blow up the mideast. In such circumstances, actually knowing something about the mideast would be disastrous for your career. Knowing something about people often has the terrible side effect of making you see them as human. And this in turn makes it harder to muster enthusiasm for the whole blowing-them-up project.

Not in spite of, but because.

AND: From a 2004 article in Rolling Stone:

Over at Defense, competent intelligence professionals were purged in order to ease the way to war. Douglas Feith, brought in under Rumsfeld to serve as undersecretary of defense for policy, applied an ideological test to his staff: He didn't want competence; he wanted fervor. Col. Pat Lang, a Middle East expert who served under five presidents, Republican and Democratic, in key posts in military intelligence, recalls being considered for a job at the Pentagon. During the job interview, Feith scanned Lang's impressive resume. "I see you speak Arabic," Feith said. When Lang nodded, Feith said, "Too bad," and dismissed him.

Posted at October 17, 2006 11:05 AM | TrackBack

If you're looking for a "unified theory" about how the Bushies are destroying America, this is it: constantly choosing ideological purity over competence, on everything from global warming to interrogation methods to FEMA.

But the problem is that this pattern is so dang hard to counter, because it sounds boring and process-heavy; we can't even break this up for something relatively visible like Federal judges, let alone obscure bureacrats or the K Street Project.

But there is no better reason to vote Democratic, even if you're appalled at their lack of spine on policy concerns: power allows you to do all kinds of things that get overlooked but last for years.

Posted by: Whistler Blue at October 17, 2006 12:33 PM

Jesus wept. He turned Lang away. Look at his career, and tell me there is anyone who the US Army needs more now.

Posted by: Alex at October 17, 2006 01:47 PM

Of course, the neocon agenda includes destroying the whole world, so someone with COMPREHENSIVE ignorance was needed as president. Fortunately, such a man was available.

Posted by: Bob at October 17, 2006 02:31 PM

Oh my god, that Douglas Feith story is so upsetting. Jonathan, do I have permission to severely beat/kill Douglas Feith next time I see him?

Posted by: saurabh at October 17, 2006 03:12 PM

The 'big picture' men ain't need no extra details.

Somewhere down the chain of command someone who thinks of himself as a worthless piece of shit rather than big picture strategist will probably figure it out.

Posted by: abb1 at October 17, 2006 03:30 PM

Doug Feith: "we gotta protect our phoney-baloney jobs!"

(with apologies to Mel Brooks.)

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at October 17, 2006 08:12 PM

What else would you expect from Doug "stupidest fucking guy on the face of the planet" Feith?

Posted by: ran at October 17, 2006 09:02 PM

I didn't get a 'harumph' outta that Jonathan Versen guy, but I think all of this proves that to be a Middle East expert nowadays, you really DON'T have to know Shi'ite from Shinola!

Posted by: JLaR at October 18, 2006 12:38 AM

Don't know why, but the business about knowledge of middle east religions and languages being a strong NEGATIVE for working with the administration scares me more than anything else.

Posted by: Mimi at October 18, 2006 05:01 AM

Don't know why, but the business about knowledge of middle east religions and languages being a strong NEGATIVE for working with the administration scares me more than anything else.

Posted by: Mimi at October 18, 2006 05:01 AM

Mimi is scared twice because Feith and Company are pretty twice: Pretty scary and pretty apt to stay that way!

Posted by: JLaR at October 18, 2006 05:47 AM

So does Stein's editorial on Sunni-Shiite ignorance make up for the 1993 NYT editorial (and priceless correction) on dumb stereotypes of the Middle East?

The New York Times
July 14, 1993, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final
Correction Appended

SECTION: Section A; Page 18; Column 1; Editorial Desk

LENGTH: 288 words

HEADLINE: It's Racist, But Hey, It's Disney

Most Americans now know better than to use nasty generalizations about ethnic or religious groups. Disparaging stereotypes -- the avaricious Jew, the sneaky Chinese, the dumb Irishman, the lazy black person -- are now so unacceptable that it's a shock even to hear them mentioned.

Thanks to current international politics, however, one form of ethnic bigotry retains an aura of respectability in the United States: prejudice against Arabs. Anyone who doubts this has only to listen to the lyrics in a song from the animated Disney extravaganza "Aladdin":

Oh, I come from a land
From a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam.
Where they cut off your ear
If they don't like your face
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.

Understandably, Arab-Americans are upset. They find it difficult enough that Saddam Hussein is the villain du jour and that terrorists from Arab countries have recently threatened New York. The difficulties mount when policemen in Iran imprison women for showing their hair, or mullahs issue death warrants against authors they consider blasphemous. But the ayatollahs of Iran don't represent all Arabs, nor all Muslims -- just as sleazy televangelists don't represent all Christians, or all Americans.

Bowing to pressure from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Walt Disney Company has agreed to change two lines -- the ones about cutting off ears -- in the home video version of the movie, which will come out in October. The line "It's barbaric, but hey, it's home" will remain.

That's progress, but still unacceptable. To characterize an entire region with this sort of tongue-in-cheek bigotry, especially in a movie aimed at children, borders on barbaric.

CORRECTION-DATE: July 15, 1993, Thursday

Yesterday's editorial on anti-Arab prejudice contained the assertion that the ayatollahs of Iran don't represent all Arabs, or all Muslims. The people of Iran are predominantly Muslim but are not Arabs.

Posted by: Ben Zipperer at October 18, 2006 11:53 AM

I hate it when people in charge know less than I do. Admittedly, I only remember Shia beliefs because they sort of resemble the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Posted by: hf at October 18, 2006 03:03 PM

I used to live in JoAnn Davis's house district -- before the redistricting, it was Frank Wolfs district. The thing that sucked when JoAnn Davis was up for reelection in 2002? NO ONE RAN AGAINST HER. At least when it was Wolfs district, there was some Libertarian on the ballot.

The woman represents the outer suburbs of Washington DC and she cant tell the difference between a shi'a and a sunni? AND shes on a house subcommittee on Intelligence? Does she even read her briefing materials?!?!?

Posted by: jc at October 18, 2006 06:59 PM

Hey hf:

Since Shias have been around longer, maybe it's the Order of the Golden Dawn ideology that resembles their beliefs. On one point we certainly can be 'clear' and that is that scientology is a mutant bastardization of this infamous Order.

Even Aleister Crowley considered scientologists to be crackpots. When he heard about certain early founders taking his book "Moonchild" much to seriously, his comments were less than complementary:

"Apparantly Parsons and Hubbard or somebody is producing a moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts."

Crowley may have considered himself as the beast, that moniker could actually be applied to our own Fearless Leader. His description of those founding scientologists could also be applied to the Bush Crime Family today, for those foolish enough to believe all of this nonsense.

Fortunately for me, I live in the 21st Century but it sure is lonesome here with all of the louts who still cling to the ignorant mindset of ancient mythologies and magical mumbo-jumbo!

Posted by: JLaR at October 19, 2006 01:40 AM