WASHINGTON -- Every time some poor country explodes somewhere across the globe, the first question American journalists and analysts ask is, "What should we do?"
We do not have the answer to poverty even in our own country, or murders in Chicago, or rape in almost any back street in America. But we become very earnest and overbearing when a complicated country like Egypt erupts in a horrendous war-against-all.
On one of the Sunday TV shows on foreign policy, for instance, CNN's Fareed Zakaria said that he would give the Egyptian military and political forces only two months to work out a system acceptable to all sides before cutting off Egypt's $1.5 billion in annual American aid. But Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal disagreed, stating: "We shouldn't set a political timetable. What we should be doing is quietly cautioning the military behind the scenes."
For me -- and for historical common sense -- it was Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, respected scholar now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who made the best sense.
"We should be careful not to cast our lot with one side or the other too early," Brzezinski said. "We don't know what the outcome here will be. There might be massive violence and perhaps the religious organizations' parties will come to power. We'll have to deal with them, too.
"In other words, we ought to be cautious, restrained, willing to help whoever manages the situation in whatever fashion and let the dust settle. ... We must not get involved in becoming a protagonist in what may be a prolonged and terribly destructive conflict within Egypt. We can help to settle it down. We can cautiously work with whoever is in power, but let us not prejudge the outcome because we are in the first phase of what could be a prolonged and very bitter and very bloody struggle."
What should America do in Egypt? Virtually nothing. And that is simply because, when there is nothing you can do, don't DO anything.
When I first went to Cairo, it was 1969 and the national population was about 40 million. The city was languidly, luxuriantly lovely. Shimmery Egyptian feluccas sailed slowly up and down the Nile, while lovers dawdled along the malecons. You could walk out the back door of the popular Nile Hilton, the center of everything, and stroll down the middle of the commercial streets with no danger; most Egyptians were so kind. The Egyptians faced many problems in those days, but they remained a bottomless well of Near Eastern humor.
Today there are 90 million people in Egypt, which has only a thin strip of arable land along the great Nile River. The streets and sidewalks of Cairo are jammed tight with men and women who can barely move from the noise, the smoke, the congestion, the car accidents, the police, the blackouts, the fuel shortages and the basic need for space. Every year, young men -- and women -- pour out of the universities with nowhere to go but to demonstrate in Tahrir Square.
When the Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi took power a year ago, many Egyptians had hope that a new government could address these problems from a religious viewpoint. But President Morsi did not see the need for secularists in his administration, or anything but a religious agenda.
At least one thing the Morsi government apparently DID see were the plans of neighboring Ethiopia to build the grandly named Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the upper Nile, already underway, which would deprive overpopulated, underdeveloped and underfed Egypt of precious water. Indeed, one of the events that turned the population against the elected government was an unexpectedly televised meeting of Morsi and politicians around him. The politicians suggested arming Ethiopian rebels against their government and finally striking the dam with fighter jets.
Later there was talk of Egypt taking part in the bloody Syrian war. Morsi did not directly endorse these plans, but made only the deliberately ambiguous statement, worthy of the pharaohs, "All options are open."
Nor was President Morsi a very bright light with regard to the military. Morsi changed most of the military officers when he came to power, and above all, his favorite was the "reliable" Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, to whom he awarded total confidence.
What a surprise, then, when the trusted Gen. Sisi issued a public statement on June 21 warning that the growing "split in society" between Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and the secular political establishments compelled the military to "intervene."
Unfortunately, one searches without result for a man or woman who could deal with these problems -- and still have enough popular support to get elected. At this writing, familiar faces have been put forward by Washington: Mohamed ElBaradei, former U.N. diplomat, and Amr Moussa, former foreign minister.
Both are excellent men, but they are secularists, and it is unlikely the Islamists would accept them. Meanwhile, the cities of Egypt remain in chaos -- and the indicators are for far more. In Cairo, the wounded of the two sides were even killing each other in the hospitals, a rare if not singular development.
In this unfolding tragedy, obvious involvement of America -- whom the Egyptians call "Mother," and not with fondness -- would only further poison the atmosphere. Our job now is to step back, show cautious support for new elections and tread carefully in this deadly serious game.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)