One of the scariest stories of the year comes from Tuesday’s New York Times. It was extracted in yesterday’s Australian, but it’s well worth looking at the full version.

Jeff Stein, national security editor at Congressional Quarterly, over months of talking to people in Washington involved with the “war on terror”, has been stumping them with a simple question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”

As he says, he’s “not looking for theological explanations, just the basics”. But that’s enough: “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.”

American insularity isn’t news. But these are not ignorant high school students vainly trying to identify European countries on a map; these are policymakers whose decisions affect the lives of millions — and to whom allies like Australia have subcontracted our own foreign policy.

According to Stein, the head of the FBI’s national security branch guessed that Iran and Hezbollah were Sunni. (They’re Shi’ite.) The head of a House intelligence subcommittee that oversees CIA Islamic operations could manage “The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa.”

As Stein asks, “wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants?”

It’s reminiscent of the troubles in Lakemba in 1998, when it was revealed that the New South Wales police, despite behaving like an occupying army, had only a handful of officers who could actually speak Arabic.

But whereas that little piece of cultural blindness only threatened the peace of south-western Sydney, the American version is creating havoc across the Middle East.

Peter Fray

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