If you're a little bewildered trying to get a good handle on Egypt and its leadership, try thinking in terms of taking care of an obstreperous baby-or maybe what it's like dealing with a fractious teenager.
With both babies and teenagers, it goes with the territory to face a regular challenge to your sense of peace and well-being. Unreasonable demands to parental authority and order may seem to be only occasional. But they begin to multiply.
And then, as any honest parent will admit, the temptation to compromise takes over. "I really don't like giving the baby a pacifier," I've heard more than one parent confess. "But it sure beats two hours of screaming." "Yah, I know that I said there'd be no privileges if the room wasn't cleaned up. But no way was I prepared to hear a nonstop whine for the rest of the day."
Peace and tranquility feel so good, and are such compelling commodities in our embattled lives, that we lose track of how easily we trade other values away just to enjoy the calm of the moment.
Relatively speaking, we've enjoyed that "calm of the moment" now for a remarkable stretch not just in Egypt, but in a number of other heavily authoritarian cultures in the Middle East. The orderliness and dependability of a friendly Egypt (along with its minimalist support for the rights of Israel) have become so attractive to us, and appealed so compellingly to our desire for a bit of quiet, that we've been willing to ignore some of the higher ultimate costs. We may not be guilty of consciously having bought "peace at any price." It's more that we've relished peace so much that we just haven't bothered to look at the price tag.
Yet there comes a time, as it does with any parent who ignores the ultimate effect of permissiveness, when it all tends to blow up in your face. The screaming baby or the whining teenager suddenly turns into something a good bit more distressing, and the ability to "buy them off" with ever-more-extravagant peace offerings simply vanishes. Less than two years ago, President Obama was the overconfident parent, all too certain in his Cairo speech of his ability to finesse a relationship with both Egypt and other repressive Islamic nations. Two weeks ago, that same brash parent was stumbling for words as reality set in and one option after another went swirling down the drain.
The blame, of course, doesn't rest entirely with President Obama. Every U.S. administration in recent history has wrestled with the same tradeoffs-and we know now that way too often Obama's predecessors allowed an ill-founded optimism to crowd out the realities of harsh and ugly behavior by those who are supposed to be our allies and friends.
Want another current example? Try Iraq. All of recent history says we need to be on the side of the fragile new government there. Our investment in money and lives to achieve a delicate democracy is almost incalculable. So Baghdad is our ally-right? Yet to keep the peace that seems so essential among allies, we end up all but silent about the shameful treatment that even now continues to drive our Christian brothers and sisters out of Iraq. And this in what has become the single freest Islamic nation in the whole Middle East!
I don't pretend the answers are easy. I've never been an international diplomat. I doubt if the answer is typically to walk suddenly and dramatically away from a Hosni Mubarak or any other long-time friend.
We need to be instructed, however, by these current reminders. Even among friends-and maybe we should say especially among friends-truth-telling is an important obligation. We need to tell the truth in love, but we need to tell the truth. That's the case within families, within our churches, within the workplace, within political parties-and in international relations.
And it's worth remembering at this crisis point that some honest, aggressive, and even public truth-telling with our friends in Egypt over the last 20-30 years might have spared us some of our current embarrassment and loss of options.
Email Joel Belz