Career Calling

August 18, 2013

Sabbath, August 18, 2013

[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond the job world in “Sabbath.”]

Problems That Defy Solutions

Over the last week, we’ve seen terrible images from Egypt.  Hundreds have been killed in ongoing protests.  Meanwhile another civil war continues in Syria.  The death toll in that country is in the thousands.  The media often covers these stories as if they were covering a sporting event that had a limited scope and a clear victor.  The reality is far more complicated.  The problem for our political leaders and the media is that most Americans don’t want to hear about complexity.  We want problems that are simple and easy to solve.

What should the president do in such cases?  Clearly some action must be taken, but, as we’ve seen from past interventions, today’s solution can turn into tomorrow’s problem.  In the 1980s, the U.S. supported “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan.  Later, some of those people became vicious warlords who ruled by terror.  Others became the Taliban who were even more extreme in their behavior, especially in the way they limited the lives of women.  Another U.S. ally in Afghanistan was Osama Bin Laden.  His actions changed America and the world.  What seemed like a happy ending in Afghanistan – the expulsion of the U.S.S.R. – turned into 9/11 and an American war in Afghanistan that has lasted for more than 10 years.

It’s terrible to hear about massacres and repressive behaviors of governments that we support.  However, as we’ve seen in Egypt, voters will select rulers and turn on them in less than a year.  First, enemies of the elected government took to the streets and the government was deposed by the army.  Now supporters of the deposed government have taken to the streets, and they have engaged in deadly confrontations with the police and military.  How can such a situation be solved simply?  While it will send a statement for the U.S. to cancel military exercises or cut off aid, how will those actions affect a conflict in which all parties are fueled by hatred and fear?

History plays out over months, years, and decades.  It’s not a TV program that where problems are resolved in 30 minutes or an hour.  Civil Wars, as America experienced, do not end quickly or peacefully.  While the U.S. Civil War lasted from 1861-1865, its aftermath has been ongoing and often subtle.  We still debate issues of racial equality and states rights. During the last presidential election, some commentators and politicians in Texas claimed the state had a right to secede.

150 years after the bloody battle of Gettysburg some Americans still consider secession to be the best way to solve our differences.  In that light, it’s difficult to be critical of people in Egypt and Syria – or President Obama.  Civil wars are horrible and complicated problems.  They cannot be solved with simple words or actions.  The people of Egypt and Syria will write their own history, hopefully with as little foreign interference as possible.  However these stories end, they will not be kind or clean or simple.

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