Saturday, May 28, 2011

Iraq, Iran, Sunni, Shiite, Arab, Persian... What's the Difference?

Daniel Larison does a yeoman's job holding political candidates accountable for their foreign policy blunders, in the past commenting on notable gaffes by such notables as Mitt Romney, even as the mainstream media displays a lack of interest or pretends that the remarks are insightful. He recently commented on Tim Pawlenty's confusion of Iraq and Iran:
The reporter corrects him at this point, and Pawlenty gamely tries to recover. The most that can be said for Pawlenty in this episode is that he is giving better foreign policy answers than Herman Cain. It’s also fair to say that he’s already doing worse than then-Gov. Bush was doing at this point in 1999. It’s pretty clear that he was rehearsing a bad answer on the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, which had almost nothing to do with the question he was asked. He was asked a question about contradictions in U.S. regional policy related to the expansion of Iranian influence, and he wasn’t even attempting to answer that question. He went through his answer substituting the words Iran and Iranians without missing a beat, and that is probably because his grasp of these subjects remains very superficial. If it had just been the name of the country, everyone might be able to shrug it off as a slip of the tongue, but it was more than that.
I'm with Larison on this one - well, no, I'm not quite as sympathetic to the "slip of the tongue" argument. While, particularly in retrospect, the import of Bush's ignorance of South Asia, and the treatment of Gore's knowledge of the region and its leaders as a pedantic irrelevancy, seems wholly irresponsible on the part of the media, there is a huge difference between not knowing the name of the President of Pakistan and confusing Iran with Iraq (even if we overlook the fact that Pawlenty did not display even a glimmer of understanding of the question asked).

Pawlenty was born in 1960, meaning that if he followed international events at all he should have overcome any ability to confuse Iran and Iraq by the time he reached his early 20's. It's not a grave sin to not care about or follow international affairs, even to shrug off conflicts in the Middle East, in favor of domestic concerns - or even to switch off the world news to catch sports updates on ESPN. It's possible to govern a state without knowing or caring much about international affairs. There are also degrees of ignorance, some of which suggest a basic interest or knowleged that a charitable person might argue could be overcome - confusing Shiite and Sunni, for example, as McCain at times did. But if you were a young adult during the Iran-Iraq War, subsequently lived through the first Gulf War, and are claiming to be competent to be President during this period of massive military intervention in the Middle East, that level of ignorance and confusion demonstrates a lack of interest that suggests that your place is, at best, in state and local politics.

An adult who can't differentiate a scapula from a patella? Probably not the best candidate for medical school. An adult who confuses Mississippi with Massachusetts? Probably not the best candidate for governor. They may be very competent within the sphere of their jobs and informed within their ares of interest, and they may be capable of learning the facts if given enough time and tutoring, but their inherent lack of interest in the subject matter does translate into a high probability that the best we can expect from them is basic competence. We should expect a lot more from somebody who claims he's qualified to be the President.

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