Americans instinctively yearn for crisp, clear distinctions: light or darkness, winners or losers, Packers or Steelers, Republicans or Democrats, righteous or rotten. We don't do well with nuance, complexity, confusion and shades of gray. Shaped by the muscular Christian moralism of our Puritan forebears, we prefer to define every struggle, every choice, in terms of principled polarities and the eternal conflict between good and evil.
But as the confusion continues in Cairo, how can you separate angels from demons in fiercely contested Tahrir Square?
Mubarak and his buddies have conducted a dictatorial and oppressive regime, but they've also maintained peace with Israel and supported the U.S. in the war against terror. The protesters chant anti-Western slogans and embrace jihadists of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they also demand the same democratic procedures and institutions we have sacrificed so lavishly to install in nearby Iraq.
No wonder the American public gets dizzy when contemplating the unfolding melodrama and the Obama administration's fitful efforts to resolve the crisis. The most recent Gallup poll -- taken before today's turn of events -- showed a statistical tie between those who approved of the president's handling of the Egyptian situation and those who said they disapprove.
Even among conservatives, there's a nasty split between realists who attack Obama for undermining our pro-Western ally, Mubarak, and idealists who attack the president for doing too little to advance the democratic agenda that President George W. Bush famously championed in the Middle East.
One frequent charge seems pointedly unfair, as prominent voices on the right cite an allegedly embarrassing contrast between Obama's feckless, feeble backing of the 2009 "Green Revolution" protests against our enemies in Iran while purportedly providing much stronger backing for the similar demonstrations against our allies in Egypt.
In truth, Obama used almost identical words in both cases -- expressing meaningless support for the "democratic aspirations" of the protesters and warning the authoritarian regimes not to repress peaceful demonstrators with violence or brutality.
The mullahs in Iran cheerfully ignored his noble words. With no embassy in Teheran and few business interests anywhere in the country, we hardly exert powerful influence on the Islamic republic. Egypt, on the other hand, has long been awash with American aid dollars, intelligence agents, embassy personnel and businessmen, so the Mubarak minions felt largely constrained from expressing their rage against the opposition.
Moreover, the Obama administration showed more consistency in its response to the two crises than most conservatives recognize.
In reacting to the street fighting in Iran, the president and his henchmen seemed hesitant, confused, contradictory, oddly arrogant, self-righteous and utterly incompetent.
In responding to the regime-shaking earthquake in Egypt, the Obamanauts looked hesitant, confused, contradictory, preposterously arrogant, self-righteous and altogether incompetent.
Their sloppy handling of the Cairo crisis at least seems more comprehensible.
Even after weeks of unrest, Egypt stubbornly yields no comparable clarity, and the administration's herky-jerky pronouncements provide no assistance.
It may take months or even years to see a decisive resolution of the pyrotechnics by the Pyramids, and by that time the American public most likely will have exhausted its limited attention span, losing interest in a wearying reality show with few attractive contestants and no satisfying conclusion.