You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Reyes to the Bottom

Thank goodness for Jeff Stein. Stein is the Congressional Quarterlyeditor who has taken to asking top government officials basic factsabout the Middle East. Earlier this year, he asked Willie Hulon,head of the FBI's national security branch, whether Iran andHezbollah were mostly Sunni or Shia. "Sunni" came the reply. Lastweek, incoming House Intelligence Committee Chairman SilvestreReyes told him that Al Qaeda was composed of Shia. When Stein wenton to ask the religious identity of Hezbollah, Reyes stammered andthen said, "Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock?"

And you wonder why the United States is failing in the Middle East.I'm sure Hulon and Reyes are decent, intelligent men, but they aresymptoms of a disastrous American tendency to see knowledge offoreign societies as superfluous to foreign policy. According tothe Iraq Study Group, the 1,000- person U.S. Embassy in Baghdadboasts only six employees fluent in Arabic. And the Study Groupisn't exactly an intellectual powerhouse itself: Of its tenmembers, only five have significant international experience, andnone is a genuine expert on Iraq or the Middle East.

Why do we think this is OK? Part of the answer, I suspect, ispopulism--a deep-seated American distrust of experts and faith inthe wisdom of the common woman and man. In 1999, for instance,after George W. Bush couldn't name the leaders of India, Pakistan,and Chechnya in an interview with a Boston reporter, spokeswomanKaren Hughes huffed that "99 percent of most Americans" couldn'teither, as if that made it all right. But it's not elitist toexpect politicians to know more about the rest of the world thanaverage Americans. In fact, true populists should insist on it,since, at its best, populism abhors undeserved power--the kind thatallows people with no particular expertise or ability to enjoyprivileges that ordinary people don't.

When it comes to foreign policy, suspicion of experts isparticularly strong on the right, where it is nourished by stylizedmemories of the cold war. In the conservative memory, the UnitedStates reached its foreign policy nadir under Jimmy Carter, atechnocrat whose mastery of detail concealed an appalling absenceof strategic vision. The United States gloriously rebounded underRonald Reagan, who got individual facts wrong but big ideas right.From the beginning, George W. Bush has marketed himself as Reagan'sheir: another guy who doesn't let minutiae interfere with his graspof the big picture.

This actually does a disservice to Reagan, whose knowledge of theSoviet Union dwarfed Bush's knowledge of the Middle East. (Between1976 and 1980, for instance, Reagan personally wrote dozens ofradio commentaries--including six in a row summarizing neoconacademic Eugene Rostow's critique of salt II.) But, more generally,it misreads the broader lesson of the cold war, which is thatcultural knowledge is critical to foreign policy success. One reasonthe Truman administration fashioned such wise policies toward theSoviet Union was the influence of men like George Kennan, AverellHarriman, and Chip Bohlen, all of whom had served in the U.S.Embassy in Moscow. By contrast, as David Halberstam notes in TheBest and the Brightest, the United States stumbled into Vietnam"with virtually no input from anyone who had any experience on therecent history of that part of the world." By the 1960s, theMcCarthyite campaign against officials supposedly complicit in thecommunist takeover of China had cleansed the State Department ofits best Asia hands. And, as a result, most of the men (and theywere all men) making Vietnam policy saw Southeast Asia as a blankcanvas onto which the United States could transpose containmentpolicies developed in Europe.

In much the same way, the Bush administration has treated the MiddleEast as intellectually derivative--a repository for theories ofrogue-state rollback derived in Europe and Asia during World War IIand the cold war. History can be a source of inspiration andguidance, but only when carefully adapted to present realities.And, from the beginning, the Bush administration proved hostile tothe very Mideast experts (concentrated at the State Department andCIA) most aware of those realities. To head up the U.S. occupationof Iraq, the White House initially chose Jay Garner, who, whenadvised to contact Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani--the mostpowerful man in the country--responded, "Why? Who is this person?"Garner's successor, L. Paul Bremer-- according to Larry Diamond'sbook Squandered Victory--knew who Sistani was but considered himpolitically insignificant until January 2004, when Sistani sent tensof thousands of Shia into the streets to protest Bremer's plan fora caucus system to choose Iraq's constituent assembly. It took U.N.diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian who had spent almost hisentire career in the Middle East, to convince Sistani--inArabic--to accept a compromise. Again and again, as Diamond andothers have detailed, the knowledge gap between U.N. officials andtheir American counterparts in post-Saddam Iraq was not merelylarge; it was downright embarrassing.

Foreign policy is not only about opinions; it is also about facts.And it is time Americans begin to demand that policymakers exhibita minimum factual competence before we take their opinionsseriously. It wouldn't be hard. Whenever government officials showup on television, interviewers should throw in a Stein question ortwo. For instance, who is the supreme leader of Iran? Who wasMohammed Mossadeq? What is Bashar Assad's religion? Which Europeancountry colonized Lebanon? Can you name an Iraqi ethnic groupbesides Arabs and Kurds? For most politicos, passing up anappearance on "Meet the Press" or "Larry King" is inconceivable,and so they'll do what Reyes is hopefully doing now: study.

Of course, being able to answer a pop quiz is a far cry from deepcultural knowledge. But it's better than nothing. After all, if youdon't even know that Iran is predominantly Shia, how can youpossibly make a judgment about the regional consequences of a U.S.withdrawal from Iraq? And, if TV hosts want to quiz pundits, too,all the better. (My Mideast literacy certainly wouldn't win anyawards.) The Stein test isn't only about improving knowledge; it'salso about inculcating humility. And, if there's one thing we'velearned from the catastrophe in Iraq, it's that the people makingU.S. foreign policy need a lot more of both.

By Peter Beinart