Here’s Stefan with another variant on the question of whether or not I suck:
I still want to know how you feel about writing about Middle East policy without knowing Arabic.
In all honesty, I don’t feel that good about it. But it’s not as if the political conversation in the United States is dominated by people with a deep understanding of the Arabic language, fully immersed in primary sources, and here comes Matt Yglesias with his blog ruining everything. I read people who do read and speak Arabic (and Persian), try to be appropriately humble about my knowledge level, and try to call out people who are putting bad information out there. I think that, at the margin, the public debate is better off for me participating in it rather than leaving things entirely to Tom Friedman, Fred Hiatt, and Charles Krauthammer. Meanwhile, it’s not as if language competency is some guarantee of clairvoyance — Bernard Lewis is a bona fide scholar of the Ottoman Empire and I assume his Middle Eastern language skills could trounce mine, but he’s still talked a lot of nonsense about the contemporary Middle East and US policy toward it.
Over and above all that, I’ve tried to make awareness of my own shortcomings influence the opinions I express about American policy. One presupposition of a lot of current US policy — but also of a lot of proposed alternatives to US policy — is that the American government is actually or potentially capable of being really effective at micromanaging political outcomes in Iraq or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or wherever. I try to remind people that for a variety of reasons, language competence being high on the list, Pakistanis are almost certainly going to be better at manipulating the American elite than vice-versa.