Neither President Obama nor his conservative critics can provide a convincing response to the one question about the Egyptian crisis which the public most fervently wants answered: who are the good guys we’re supposed to be backing in the midst of this miserable muddle?
With no comely cheerleaders at the sidelines, no pom poms or marching bands, leaders and citizens alike seem similarly frustrated by a maddening inability to root one side or the other to valiant victory.
Americans instinctively yearn for crisp, clear distinctions: light or darkness, winners or losers, Packers or Steelers, Republicans or Democrats, righteous or rotten. We don’t do well with nuance, complexity, confusion and shades of gray. Shaped by the muscular Christian moralism of our Puritan forebears, we prefer to define every struggle, every choice, in terms of principled polarities and the eternal conflict between good and evil.
In much of our recent history, the nation’s enemies have proven so unmistakably vicious and lavishly loathsome that most of us easily maintained the great national faith in clear-cut heroes and villains. While our fresh-faced, mobilized farm boys and factory hands fought the Kaiser’s spike helmeted Prussians, Japanese militarists, jack-booted Hitlerite storm troopers, genocidal Stalinist commissars or suicidal Islamo-Nazi whack-jobs, most Americans found it easy to take sides. Only one major war constituted a conflict with real room for ambiguity: the epic blood-letting of the War Between the States which, for more than a century, struck most citizens as well as most historians as a tragic, internecine struggle with nobility and honor on both sides. More recently, however, we’ve applied our standard good guys/bad guys formulation even here, with most of the country outside of the old Confederacy now classifying the Civil War as a moral contest over slavery and the display of Dixie battle flags increasingly rejected as tasteless and unthinkable.
But as the confusion continues in Cairo, how can you separate angels from demons in fiercely contested Tahrir Square?
President Hosni Mubarak has conducted a dictatorial and oppressive regime, but he’s also maintained peace with Israel and supported the U.S. in the war against terror. The protesters chant anti-western slogans and embrace the jihadists of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they also demand the same democratic procedures and institutions we have sacrificed so lavishly to install in nearby Iraq. President Mubarak and his supporters say they want a peaceful and orderly transition to democracy but they’ve practiced thuggish cruelty for thirty years; the demonstrators insist they want human rights and representative government, but the most prominent opposition group boasts an 80 year history of assassination, radical conspiracies and religious fanaticism.
No wonder the American public gets dizzy when contemplating the unfolding melodrama and the Obama administration’s fitful efforts to resolve the crisis: the most recent Gallup poll shows a statistical tie between those who approve of the president’s handling of the Egyptian situation and those who say they disapprove. Even among conservatives, there’s a nasty split between realists who attack the president for undermining our pro-western ally, Mubarak, and idealists who attack the president for doing too little to advance the democratic agenda that President Bush famously championed in the Middle East.
One frequent charge seems pointedly unfair, as prominent voices on the right cite an allegedly embarrassing contrast between President Obama’s feckless, feeble backing for the 2009 “Green Revolution” protests against our enemies in Iran, while purportedly providing much stronger backing for the similar demonstrations against our allies in Egypt.
In truth, Obama used almost identical words in both cases – expressing meaningless support for the “democratic aspirations” of the protesters, and warning the authoritarian regimes not to repress peaceful demonstrators with violence or brutality. The Mullahs in Iran cheerfully ignored his noble words: with no embassy in Teheran and few business interests anywhere in the country, we hardly exert powerful influence on the Islamic Republic. Egypt, on the other hand, has long been awash with American aid dollars, intelligence agents, embassy personnel and businessmen, so the Mubarak minions have (so far) felt largely constrained from expressing their rage against the opposition. Moreover, the administration showed more consistency in its response to the two crises than most conservatives recognize.
In reacting to the street-fighting in Iran, the president and his henchmen seemed hesitant, confused, contradictory, oddly arrogant, self-righteous and utterly incompetent.
In responding to the regime-shaking earthquake in Egypt, meanwhile, the Obamanauts looked hesitant, confused, contradictory, preposterously arrogant, self-righteous and altogether incompetent.
Their sloppy handling of the Cairo crisis at least seems more comprehensible.
In Teheran, one could easily separate the good guys (westernized young people singing hopeful songs and chanting democratic slogans) from the bad guys (angry, bearded thugs with clubs and guns, yelling “Death to America!” and pledging to shed their own blood for their Ayatollahs).
Even after weeks of unrest, Egypt stubbornly yields no comparable clarity, and the administration’s herky-jerky pronouncements (which often resemble a diplomatic version of Tourette’s Syndrome) provide little assistance.
It may take months or even years to see a decisive resolution of the pyrotechnics by the Pyramids and by that time the American public most likely will have exhausted our limited attention span, losing interest in a wearying, tough-to-follow reality show with few attractive or wholly sympathetic contestants and no satisfying conclusion.