Dec. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Does intelligent life on the Intelligence Committee matter?
This isn't an existential question. It arises because Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, in an appointment fraught with intrigue, selected Representative Silvestre Reyes to be chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
In an interview posted on Congressional Quarterly's Web site on Dec. 8, Reyes couldn't answer the most basic question about the antagonists in the biggest foreign policy disaster confronting the U.S.
``Is al-Qaeda a Sunni organization, or Shiite?'' Reyes was asked by reporter Jeff Stein. ``Predominantly, probably Shiite,'' he answered.
Later in the same interview, Reyes was asked about Hezbollah, the militant group in Lebanon that recently, as most people who read newspapers know, had a small war with Israel. ``Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah?'' ``Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o'clock?''
True enough, late afternoon is like the dead of night to members of Congress, who prefer bankers' hours and a three-day workweek. In his defense, Reyes said, ``It's hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.''
Translated, that means he can figure out his job without figuring out who's killing whom and why, in a part of the world where we've lost almost 3,000 Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis.
This Isn't Soybeans
But really, how can someone who's ALREADY on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence be so clueless? It's not as if he is an expert in soybeans just coming over from the Agriculture Committee and being thrust into a new area.
Reyes's selection raises another dumb question: How could Pelosi get one of her most important early decisions so wrong?
The short answer is by giving in to personal pique and playing old-time identity politics. Pelosi passed over the obvious choice for the job, California Representative Jane Harman, the ranking minority member of the committee. The reason: Apparently, Pelosi, also of California, had found the vast state too small to comfortably house both of them; plus, she decided that Harman wasn't tough enough on President George W. Bush.
It was a slippery slope from there. To make up for dissing a woman, she leaned toward selecting a black member of the panel, Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida. Problem was, Hastings was as ethically compromised as Representative Jack Murtha, whose backing for majority leader by Pelosi spurred a week of stories about Murtha's role in the Abscam scandal of the 1980s.
A similar flood of stories recounting the bribery scandal that led to Hastings's impeachment when he was a federal judge torpedoed that potential appointment. Pelosi, as night follows the day, picked a Hispanic on the committee, Reyes.
Pelosi's choice of party demographics over the right person for the job is reminiscent of former President Bill Clinton's decision to choose a woman -- any woman -- for attorney general. He couldn't see how easy it would be for his enemies to take Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, whom he saw as working women with child- care issues, and paint them as wealthy elites exploiting the hired help with immigration problems.
It's not only a Democratic problem. Surely, when the first President Bush said Clarence Thomas was the best-qualified person in the country to be a Supreme Court justice, he meant that he was the best-qualified black who was opposed to affirmative action that he could nominate.
When the current president decided, with prodding from the first lady, that it was time for him to appoint a woman to the court, he looked across the hall and picked a crony, White House Counsel Harriet Miers. Even his closest allies couldn't accept that.
Miers went quietly, and Justice Thomas has barely been heard from, but Pelosi isn't so lucky. Reyes is already going against her position on Iraq and leaning toward Bush, not only opposing a reduction in troops but proposing as many as 30,000 more.
Intelligence matters. If Bush had known more, would he have barged into Iraq and risked the creation of a Shiite theocracy aligned with a nuclear-obsessed Iran? In the 2000 campaign, Bush derided a reporter's request that he name four world leaders in a pop quiz as an example of ``gotcha journalism.'' That's after Bush only managed to come up with ``Lee'' for Taiwan's president at the time, Lee Teng-hui, and identified Pakistan's leader as ``General.''
Timorians and Grecians
That episode got lumped in with other Bush lapses, like calling the East Timorese, Timorians and Greeks, Grecians, as in the hair color for men, all of a piece with the non-elite image he fostered. Details are for chumps.
Then came 9/11. It desperately mattered that General-what's- his-name was heading Pakistan, and Pervez Musharraf became essential in the war against al-Qaeda (Sunnis, Mr. Reyes) hiding in Afghanistan.
Even after 9/11, according to ``The End of Iraq,'' a book by the former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, Bush didn't race to learn what he didn't know. In a meeting with three Iraqi-Americans, Bush was surprised to find there were two Islamic sects who hated each other in Iraq. ``I thought the Iraqis were Muslims,'' Bush said.
Not exactly. Iraq's Shiite majority is now aligned with its former enemy, Iran, potentially creating a theocracy with the potential to have a nuclear bomb. Iran, which also backed Shiite- controlled Hezbollah, is on the verge of achieving its greatest strategic triumph in centuries without firing a shot. The Saudis, our allies, are threatening to get involved on the side of Iraq's Sunni minority. It will take decades to undo the damage, if ever. Pray the next president knows more than to invade countries whose factions he knows nothing about.
The sooner Pelosi chooses her colleagues on how much they know and not what category they fit into, the better off she, the Democrats and the country will be. Turns out what our leaders don't know can kill us.
(Margaret Carlson, author of ``Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House'' and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)