Imagine it’s your belief that American policymakers cannot possibly formulate effective policy in Iraq because they lack fundamental knowledge about the region and its players. You believe it’s as loony as someone writing an NFL game plan without knowing a cornerback from a quarterback. Except with stakes that are radically higher.

How would you get this message across? The most common approach would be to discuss the complexities of the region — thus demonstrating that YOU understand the issues — and to illuminate the ways in which our current policies ignore those complexities.

Jeff Stein, the national security editor at Congressional Quarterly, has come up with a much better approach. He doesn’t focus on what he knows. He focuses on what politicians don’t know. And it is shocking enough to stick.

Here’s Maureen Dowd relating an interview [subscriber only] that Stein conducted with Silvestre Reyes, who is the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee:

Stein … asked [Reyes] whether Al Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” the lawmaker guessed.

As Mr. Stein corrected him in the article: “Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an Al Qaeda clubhouse, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.”

Mr. Stein followed up with a Hezbollah question: “What are they?” Again, Mr. Reyes was stumped.

“Hezbollah,” he stammered. “Uh, Hezbollah. Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock? Can I answer in Spanish?” (O.K. ¿Que es Hezbollah?)

Sounding as naked of essentials as Britney Spears, the new intelligence oversight chief pleaded that it was hard to keep all the categories straight. Thank heavens Mr. Stein never got to Syrian Alawites.

Stein had articulated his approach in an earlier Times op-ed entitled, “Can You Tell a Sunni from a Shiite?” He explains why he has resorted to playing “gotcha” — asking lawmakers basic questions like, “What is Hezbollah?” — to prove his point. Stein points out: “After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants?”

Stein is upending a belief that we have, which is that lawmakers in important positions know vastly more than we do. It isn’t surprising that most Americans don’t know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni. But it’s SHOCKING that a policymaker, in the intelligence community, wouldn’t. It violates our conviction that the right people in the right positions know the right info. That unexpectedness, and the sense of betrayal that accompanies it, is why this idea will stick, and it’s why lawmakers will be scrambling to learn the answers to these questions. And if the threat of public shaming turns out to be a more powerful motivator than a public servant’s sense of obligation, then bully for Stein for engineering the approach.

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