If Sun Tzu had met Silvestre Reyes, he'd have understood at once why the United States is faltering in Iraq.
Rep. Reyes, D-Tex, has been chosen by incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He granted an interview last week to Jeff Stein, national security editor for Congressional Quarterly magazine.
Toward the end of a 40 minute interview, Mr. Stein asked Rep. Reyes whether al Qaeda was comprised chiefly of Sunni Muslims, or Shiites.
"Predominantly probably Shiite," he responded.
The opposite, of course, is true. Al Qaeda is comprised of Sunni extremists who regard Shiite Muslims as heretics who deserve to be killed. Al Qaeda attacks on Shia civilians is what triggered the civil strife in Iraq.
Mr. Reyes has, alas, much company in his abysmal ignorance. Two GOP members of the Intelligence committee, Reps. Jo Ann Davis of Virginia and Terry Everett of Alabama, flunked Mr. Stein's little quiz last summer.
The pressing business of Congressmen (raising money for their re-election campaigns and stuffing earmarks into appropriations bills) takes up a lot of time. But is it too much to ask that members of the intelligence committee especially the chairman of the intelligence committee know the basic facts about the enemy who attacked us on 9/11?
Sun Tzu was a Chinese general. His "Art of War" is the oldest surviving treatise on military strategy. It is still considered the best by most strategists today.
"If you know the enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles," Sun Tzu wrote. "If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."
Reps. Reyes, Davis, and Everett make it plain that many in our government who need to do not know the enemy. The problem is most pronounced among our lawmakers, but is, alas, not restricted to them. Jeff Stein began his little quizzes when he learned a senior counterterrorism official in the FBI didn't know the difference between Sunnis and Shias. There are more than a thousand people in our embassy in Baghdad. But according to the Iraq Study Group only six of them are fluent in Arabic.
I panned the puerile recommendations of the Iraq Study Group in an earlier column, and will not re-plow that ground here. But the mere existence of the ISG tells us some unpleasant things about ourselves that we ought to know, but evidently don't.
First, there is the speed with which Congress palmed off its responsibility to conduct oversight of Executive Branch policies to a private panel of has beens. It's time our lawmakers paid more attention to their responsibilities, and less to their privileges.
Second, there is our preference for celebrity over authority. Though the panel contained two former secretaries of state (James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger) and a former secretary of defense (William Perry), it was comprised chiefly of people who know next to nothing about either the Middle East or the military.
We listen to famous people because they are famous, not because they have any insight into the topic at hand. (The news media paid little attention to the opinions of retired generals Jack Keane, Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey, who met with the President Monday, though they have forgotten more about Iraq than the members of the ISG ever learned.)
Third, the glee with which many in the Washington establishment particularly in journalism greeted the (glaringly obvious) finding that things are not going well in Iraq suggests an elite so insulated and out of touch that it sees no ill consequences flowing to themselves from a defeat being inflicted upon their country. The appropriate response of serious people would have been concern, perhaps anger. But an elite that sees a big setback in the war against Islamofascism chiefly in terms of its impact on domestic politics is not comprised of serious people.
Ordinary Americans sense this. A Gallup poll taken for USA Today over the weekend indicated that only one American in five has a "great deal" of trust that President Bush will do the right thing in Iraq. Confidence in the Democrats is even lower. Only 14 percent think Congressional Democrats will chart the proper course.
We are not winning in Iraq. But we are not losing, either, though we surely shall if we do not soon know our enemy, and know ourselves. Our education should have begun on Sept. 11, 2001. But it's not too late yet for it to start.