As the Democrats prepare to share power in 2007, one of their top priorities is to demonstrate that they can be trusted on matters of national security. They have been handed a golden opportunity – thanks to White House bungling and GOP congressional complicity – and their ’08 presidential prospects may well hinge on whether they can convince independent swing voters that they are worthy of that trust.
Too bad they have flunked their first test.
Consider the case of Democratic congressman Silvestre Reyes. He’s the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Nancy Pelosi’s compromise choice. She didn’t want to pick the hawkish Jane Harman (they have personal issues). Nor did she want to pick the next Democrat on the panel, Alcee Hastings (he’s a former federal judge who was once impeached by the House and ousted from his job by the Senate). So she went to the next Democrat on the panel, Reyes. He’s considered a decent guy, and he’s a Vietnam vet as well.
The only problem is that, despite his service on the panel, Reyes apparently doesn’t know all that much about the global war on terror.
As Jeff Stein, the national security editor of the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly magazine put it the other day, “Reyes can’t answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East….How can the Intelligence Committee do effective oversight of U.S. spy agencies when its leaders don’t know basics about the battlefield?... Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.”
Stein has a reputation for giving pop quizzes to national security officials, just to see what they know. He has embarrassed some FBI people this way. He has also embarrassed some House Republicans in the past. Maybe he’d even embarrass President Bush, who, as I recall, stumbled during his first campaign when a TV reporter gave him a pop quiz. (Politicians hate pop quizzes. I remember a snowy day in New Hamsphire, in 1996, when GOP candidate Lamar Alexander was asked whether he knew the price of a gallon of milk and the price of a loaf of bread. He flunked both.)
Anyway, now that the Democrats have a chance to show some national security expertise and project an image of strength, it’s fair enough to put Reyes on the hot seat. And it turns out that Reyes couldn’t answer the most basic question about al Qaeda. Here’s how it went, according to Stein:
Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?
“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”
“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.
He couldn’t have been more wrong. Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.
That’s because the extremist Sunnis who make up al Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics. Al Qaeda’s Sunni roots account for its very existence. Osama bin Laden and his followers believe the Saudi Royal family besmirched the true faith through their corruption and alliance with the United States, particularly allowing U.S. troops on Saudi soil.
It’s been five years since these Muslim extremists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center. Is it too much to ask that our intelligence overseers know who they are?
As Stein also demonstrated, Reyes didn't know all that much about Hezbollah, either. In the end, Stein asks the reader facetiously, “If President Bush and some of his closest associates, not to mention top counterterrorism officials, have demonstrated their own ignorance about who the players are in the Middle East, why should we expect the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee to get it right?”
I can answer that, at least in political terms. If the Democrats expect to win back the White House in 2008, they need to seriously demonstrate during 2007 that they can get it right.
Indeed, they have rarely had such an opportunity. The latest CBS News poll, released last night, shows that just 21 percent of the American people support Bush’s handling of the Iraq war – a record low. Yet the White House is still trying to shrug off its critics, even though the ever-expanding pool of critics now includes rank-and-file Republican senators like Gordon Smith of Oregon.
As I mentioned here last Friday, Smith delivered a long Senate floor speech that upbraided Bush for his failed prosecution of the war. But when Bush spokesman Tony Snow was asked yesterday about Smith’s defection, he dismissed any suggestion that Smith had made any substantive arguments. Rather, Snow simply said that “politics are emotional in the wake of an election.”
In other words, the White House is not prepared to take even its Republican critics seriously. The circling of the wagons continues.
There's a prominent new blogger at work this week - Tom DeLay. No word yet on whether he'll be tapping the keyboard in his bathrobe down in his Sugarland basement (seriously, it appears the blog will be ghost-written), although it does appear that The Hammer means business. He says he is hoping to use his blog as a rallying point for conservatives.
As a blogger, however, he doesn't seem very comfortable with the notion that he will attract comments from people who don't like him. For instance, on his very first day, this message was posted for his perusal: "You corrupt hypocrite, crawl back to the hole you came out of."
Well, DeLay's blog team reportedly got rid of that message - maybe 100 in all. It appears that the indicted ex-congressmen who once threatened federal judges ("judges need to be intimidated") just can't take the heat when it comes his way.