Many moons ago, oh, I'd say half a century at least, there was a band of folksingers on TV called the Limelighters-witty, funny folks who sang a tune about world affairs that still resonates: "The whole world is festering with unhappy souls, the French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles; Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch, and I don't like anybody very much." These days, the countries may have changed, but the enmity is still palpable.
Take, for example, the Middle East (Please, somebody, anybody, take it). Here the Syrian government has been involved in a civil war that's killed over 100,000 of its own people and is pitting Sunni against Shia, Al Qaeda against Hezbollah, and a dozen other factions in between. The Syrian regime has now apparently taken to using nerve gas, something verboten in the international community, a red line that cannot be tolerated. Other countries, however, tolerate it just fine. The Russians and the Chinese don't appear to be bothered. And the Iranians, who just happen to be Syria's best bud, are not about to abandon them, even though Iran suffered horrible gas attacks during its last war with Iraq. You'd think they'd have some qualms, but no. Somehow it's the United States that feels it must act. With or without UN authorization, we're about to launch cruise missiles into that country to "send a message" to President Assad. (Things are moving so quickly that by the time you read this those missiles may have already done their work). Leave aside for a moment the fact that the US is war weary and only 9% of Americans favor another military intervention. And leave aside also that our military is not in business to simply send messages; no, they would much prefer to either stay out completely or go in to win (whatever that means). And what will be the net effect of such a strike? Hard to tell. The Syrians and Iranians are already declaring that they will strike Israel in retaliation, which on its face, makes no sense at all, but not much in that region ever does, does it. Our government says it doesn't intend by whatever action it embarks on to tilt the playing field toward the rebels, but of course when you fire a whole bunch of missiles at Syrian tanks and airfields that's just what you're doing.
We don't want to take sides, because, in this case, there is no one to root for. Nor do we want to appear to be a paper tiger. I don't envy President Obama's current predicament-anything he does has tremendous downsides, and that includes doing nothing. The truth is, Syria is now just a more violent version of Egypt, another miserable place where we're left standing on the sidelines. We don't care for the Muslim Brotherhood, and yet they were fairly elected. We don't care for the Egyptian military's coup, and yet they stand for stability and the people are behind them.
The lesson I take away from all this is that democracy is inherently a very fragile creature, at least in the beginning, and not something easily transplanted from one bed to another. Also, that we Americans never seem to handle nuance well. We know what we know and we believe what we believe. And sometimes this makes us look naïve in a world where cynicism is king.