In an eye-opening commentary in yesterday’s New York Times, Jeff Stein (the national security editor at the Congressional Quarterly) clues us into the clueless state of this administration’s national security apparatus. “Can you tell a Sunni from a Shiite?” he asked a number of counterterrorism officials and members of Congress. The responses, often dumbfounded “I dunno” looks, reveal one of the reasons the so-called war on terror is going so badly. “Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting. And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night.” Anybody, it seems, but our self-assured Bush League presidency.

The problem is not that our overnight counterterrorism experts would fail even the most basic Islam 101 course. Even if they read the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam, they still would not get it. First of all, we should be talking about Sunni and Shi’a or else Sunnite and Shiite and perhaps even Americanite. This is not just a professor’s linguistic purity campaign. Pronounce the word “Shiite” and you get the equivalent of what many of these anti-terroristas really think about Muslims of any persuasion (except perhaps those who sup with the President in the White House). Of course, as Mr. Stein documents, few of these experts know Shiite anyway.

But there is a second problem in dividing the world into two religio-political camps based on a cleavage that occurred at the very formation of the Islamic faith. The history of Muslims in the Middle East and around the globe cannot be understood by a simplistic reduction to two variable historical trends which have evolved over centuries. Islam, like all major faiths, has many islams within it, more ways of being Muslim than looking at the first name on an identity card and killing someone whose name is deemed either Sunni or Shi’a.

The realpolitick here has little to do with doctrine and much to do with occupation. When Saddam ruled there was no sectarian violence and Christians felt safe in his secular state. As a dictator with a secular socialist agenda, admittedly suffering from Stalinesque pretensions, the issue was not what kind of Muslim an Iraqi was but whether one supported Saddam and his Ba’ath machine. The choice was rather simple and obvious and many Iraqis enjoyed a nationwide security knowing what not to do. Iraq has been liberated from a brutal dictator, but not from the mayhem of instability. Today in Iraq you can be killed for so many different reasons, including just being in the wrong place when a bomb goes off, that there is no escape except fleeing the country. Sunni kill Shi’a and Shi’a kill Sunni and Sunni kill Sunni if they are Kurdish and Shi’a kill Shi’a if they do not support Sadr and both Sunni and Shi’a kill Christian and just about everyone seems to be bent on killing the occupying force, which is mainly the United States.

I am not sure a history lesson on the origins and influence of Sunni and Shi’a in Iraq would help at this point. It would be better if our officials, elected and career, understood the impact of recent meddling in Iraq. Forget about Kerbala; start with King Feisal and the aftermath of World War I. Remember the thousands of Iraqi lives lost to British bombardment and quelling of “revolts.” Consider the joint British-American installation of the Shah after the externally prompted overthrow of a nationalist leader in Iran in the 1950s. Then there is the moral paradox of supporting Saddam as dictator when he attacked “our” enemy Iran in the 1980s, leaving Saddam in power after the first Gulf War and watching as the people of Iraq (certainly not Saddam and his family) suffered through sanctions that had no effect whatsoever in bringing about a regime change.

The problem is that those who are taking the lead in fighting the enemy terrorists have no clue who or what the real enemy is. It is not some Muslim-Man-from-U.N.C.L.E-like al-Qaeda, which has become far more powerful as an icon than it ever was as operator of an Afghan training camp; nor is it Sunni or Shiite. The real enemy is stupidity and it appears to have a stranglehold on U. S. policy at home and abroad. Indeed, who can sleep peacefully at night with the Homespun Security folk at the helm.

Daniel Martin Varisco