Sunday, April 10, 2011

Picking Your Battles

Most of us are familiar with The Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” On a more secular level, there is perhaps a need to add an additional line, to the effect that, “… and the judgment to direct my energies towards those best changes I can create.”

There is no lack of topics that cry out for change today. Yet for any one of us to try to attempt to engage them all will ultimately be self-defeating. If we are too disperse, we risk making so little impact on so many needs. Hence the additional adage to “pick your battles wisely,” where you can truly make a significant difference. Philanthropists typically say it is better to give a substantial donation to a few causes, rather than small amounts to many deserving organizations. In business, we hear the admonition that it is better to do a few things well than trying to be all products to all markets. Militarily, a few decisive engagements are far more effective than endless skirmishing – unless you are badly out-numbered and out-resourced, of course!

For most caring and empathetic people of moral standards and inclinations toward universal justice and equality, such advice towards “selective limits” can be tough to swallow. Why support this change and not that? Why correct this wrong and not that? John Kennedy’s observation that “life is not fair” may be true, but it leaves an empty gnawing in our stomachs. History has many examples of the consequences of reaching too far. Yet it also shows what happens when we do not reach at all.

Which brings us to the current events in the MENA regions (Middle East / North Africa). In such a short span of months, unimaginable events are occurring at a speed and interrelatedness that could not have been foreseen. It is, as Dickens said, “the best of times and worst of times.” Similarly, our emotional and intellectual responses to what we see and hear can be greatly conflicted. It is all complicated by the reality that many individual countries are involved in protest/revolution/change, but the form, manner and motivation differ inside each country. Each plays out its own story, with its own characters, operating consciously but independently of each other. It is not a change driven by the usual religious differences or land possession arguments or east/west differences as we are used to. It is driven instead by youthful ambition, extreme under-/unemployment, pervasive never-ending poverty, lack of a sense of personal and cultural respect, and an absence of freedom – freedom of movement, choice, participation in government and the influences on one’s own destiny and life.

Change is always scary, because one can only read the current chapter of our life story, not the future ones. So we cannot know where each of these MENA stories will end up. Even the ugly dictator we know can feel safer than the revolutionary we do not. But life – and change – is always a risk. Logically, we know that the bad guys will never get better, and they will only delay ultimate change, not deter it. We also know that ordinarily we can control and determine only a little bit of the outside changes that surround and impact us.

In our hearts, though, we are always with the little guys in their boldness to overcome adversity and oppression. We who were politically born in revolution cannot off-handily deny our affiliation with our modern kindred. Every American who proclaims love for universal freedom at some point has to put up or be shown to be an empty voice. So we have to be involved in this sea change that is occurring. The only question is HOW. The only answer is SMARTLY.

We have continually abused our relationships with the MENA countries over the years, interfering with their governments, siding with dictators, de facto owning their oil. We sold them plenty of guns and missiles, but not much food, marketplaces, farms and economic opportunities. We have made continual negative statements about their cultures and humanity. Then we wonder why they hate us. Right now is our opportunity to correct some of our mistakes.

So we need to support changes in Egypt – the historical leader in the region – with intellectual contributions and economic and entrepreneurial aid to its citizens (not the military, though they have behaved admirably). Tunisia, where it all started? Probably ditto, though its impact on the world’s future is considerably less. These changes will be messy; we can’t know how it will all turn out over time. But our American Revolution was pretty messy at the beginning too; 200 years later we still struggle with true freedom for all.

Which brings us to Libya. So far, I believe Obama has chosen the right actions, based upon what we have known at moments in time. Here was a very real potential for a bloodbath. But in Libya is also where conditions said we could probably successfully prevent such an outcome, at a minimum dollar and human cost. We could demonstrate true international leadership by building a genuine coalition, and prove ourselves to be responsive to a first-ever Arab call for our intervention, a call we would be foolish to ignore. Assuming that we keep our promise for “no boots on the ground,” and remain properly in the back seat of future actions instead of our typically telling everybody what to do, militarily we can handle this level of our engagement. Are we stretched economically and militarily? Yes. Can we handle this proportion of action? Yes. This particular trade-off is focused and achievable. But in lieu of their non-existent militaries, some dollars from the oil-rich MENA countries who asked us to help in Libya would be appropriate to offset our costs of engagement.

But what about all the other protestors, why not help them? Yemen: too totally tribal, in chaos, another Afghanistan. Bahrain: better achieved by “back door” diplomacy. Syria: bad news place, intervention is another Iraq. Iran: Worse than another Iraq, leadership too entrenched.

War sucks. Unfortunately it is still part of our human condition. So like it or not, we make selected choices about where to act, and adapt different responses to different situations. (Although we can hope that our choices will not simply be motivated by our usual greed for oil, but for higher purposes.) Once again, such selectivity can be hard to swallow. The cultural genocide that China is committing in Tibet sickens the soul. The enslavement of the Myanmar (Burma) people by “the generals” is unforgivable. But we nevertheless need to make decisions about who, what and where. We accept that our brains will be satisfied, but our hearts will not. There will be no universal logic here; there will be universal regret about what we cannot change – yet. While we seek to change to rightness what we can, where we can, how we can, we will still pray that each wrong will still be righted in its own time.