Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Parent’s Dilemma, A Nation’s Conscience

You know that moment as a parent when you steel yourself and say you’re going to let them make their own choices? You’re not going to interfere. When is that? When they’re eighteen? Twenty one? For most of us it’s a gradual process. Raising the training wheels a little bit at a time before finally taking them off.

Watching the Middle East now, especially Egypt, I have some of the same feeling I used to have when one of my children flexed his or her independence to do something I was sure was a bad idea. At first I would panic: “Don’t do that, please don’t do that.” Eventually I had to look away. Not turn away--I’d always be there if they asked for help--but look away.
Iraq and Afghanistan are orphans we adopted as political adolescents, after they had bounced around between foster homes and the streets. Whatever our selfish motivations for taking them on, we had this feeling deep down that the ordinary people of those hard lands would in the end be grateful to us. It hasn’t turned out that way, and we’re having a hard time accepting that they hate us, or at least don’t want us telling them what to do anymore. Exhausted and frustrated, we want nothing more than to look away.
Egypt is a little different. Egypt made peace with Israel forty years ago. We brokered that peace. Egypt gives our military free access to its airspace and to the Suez Canal, both of which are strategically important to us. If Iraq and Afghanistan are rebellious youngsters, Egypt is a middle-aged child whose quirks and foibles we have learned to accept. When it overthrew its dictator and held free elections, it was like watching an older child who has been struggling with an identity crisis declare his commitment to a newfound sense of virtuous purpose. We were both high on hope.
But Egypt’s democracy has been sidetracked again. The good and bad angels perched on its broad shoulders are screaming in its ears. We can’t choose which they should heed. I doubt we even fully understand what the choice means to them. What is worse, if you are Egyptian: dictatorship or Sharia law?
So what should we do?
What you do when your adult children hit a rough patch: let them know you are there for them, that you are willing to help them keep body and soul together to the extent you can. What we shouldn’t do is give them money to finance self-destructive behavior.
Nations are not children, of course, and we are no other country’s parent. Analysts call regimes we assist in our own self-interest “client states.” I think that term is too businesslike, though. Our relationship with those leaders and their people is more personal, with all the strong emotion, irrationality, mistrust and conniving that exists between two people who are locked together by love or circumstance and can’t agree on how one or the other should behave.
After a while parents learn that with some children the best thing they can do is stay out of it. I think this is what it has come to in Egypt, indeed in most of the Middle East. The people there need to work out their futures for themselves.
There is, however, one aspect of our relationship with struggling nations that is unlike that of parent and child. If an adult child hurts others, what to do about it is out of the parents’ hands. The law takes over to protect innocent people. What a parent wants, or can do, becomes irrelevant.
Just as with grown children, when countries go on killing sprees, our effectiveness as an encouraging parent diminishes to zero. In those circumstances, called upon conscience and by others in the global community, we have to decide whether to step in as something like a world policeman or to look away. It is hard to intervene when a ruthless despot is murdering his citizens. It is hard not to.
How do we decide when to get involved? What spurs us to rush in in some cases and not others? Why the Balkans and not Rwanda? We have to ask ourselves how much suffering of others we can ignore, how much risk of war in foreign lands we can accept. These are the questions we are asking this morning as evidence mounts that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of innocent civilians, the latest of tens of thousands who have died in the last two years of Syrian civil war.
However we make that judgment--in Syria and other countries, perhaps even Egypt one day--if we do intervene we must remember why we are doing it. We must resist the temptation to play political missionary. That, at a minimum, is the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan.
If, like some Old West sheriff, we take our gun down from over the mantel and step into the street to face a band of lawless killers, when the job is done, we need to put away our badge go back to acting like a worried parent: watching and hoping, but knowing that the internal affairs of other countries, like the lives of our grown children, are not ours to decide.


  1. Speaking of parenting, I'm concerned with this subculture of dead-eyed twenty-somethings reeking havoc. Our benign neglect is coming home to roost.

  2. Such good questions here, really nicely laying out the issues, and showing how hard it to see the best course.

    On the prior comment, perhaps we travel in different atmospheres, but I see so very many twenty-somethings trying to do good -- teaching in poor schools, reaching out overseas, starting ventures that focus less on making a billion dollars than on making a difference -- that it makes me admire that generation.

  3. I did say "subculture". I'm not dismissing all of youth.
    But don't pretend we don't have a large (and growing) dysfunctional group to deal with. And it's the fault of us baby boomers that this dysfunction exists; an overly permissive "atmosphere" that we encouraged.
    Now we're dealing with children with unrealistic expectations, and a very low threshold for pain.

  4. Mac, sorry to veer off the subject. Your piece is very thoughtful, and I agree with you. We have our hands full with our own problems. Let the middle east settle their differences without our help.