Thanks to the Anonymous Economist for sending me a copy of a New York Times article that highlights some of the monumental point-missing of the current debates about (for example) Iraq and the War on Terror simply by asking a dumb question.



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?”

A ”gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?

After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants?

But 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. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?

My curiosity about our policymakers’ grasp of Islam’s two major branches was piqued in 2005, when Jon Stewart and other TV comedians made hash out of depositions, taken in a whistleblower case, in which top F.B.I. officials drew blanks when asked basic questions about Islam. One of the bemused officials was Gary Bald, then the bureau’s counterterrorism chief. Such expertise, Mr. Bald maintained, wasn’t as important as being a good manager.

A few months later, I asked the F.B.I.’s spokesman, John Miller, about Mr. Bald’s comments. ”A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” Mr. Miller told me. ”If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. Playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.”

Of course, I hadn’t asked about reading Urdu or Mr. bin Laden’s writings.

If you wanted a more clear cut example of the sort of “managerialist dogma” that Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling is always banging on about you couldn’t do better than that: “Of course I don’t have to be competent; I’m a leader and an agent for change.”

If you work for McKinsey that sort of attitude destroys wealth (not yours, obviously); if you work for security agencies it can get people killed.

(By the way, viewing it with my copy of Firefox, the three main menus of links on the front page of the McKinsey Website are obscured by a huge picture of two men in suits. You can just about see the edges of the panels of options, but you can’t click on any of them. It takes highly paid management consultants to deliver that kind of integrated, global, customer-facing stupidity.)