New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, writing last week on health care reform, said "There's a point at which realism shades over into weakness."
But as I read his column, my brain seemed to wander, not to health care, but to another major news event of that week: The visit to the White House of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
But why thoughts of this 81-year-old autocrat? Krugman said it: "There's a point at which realism shades over into weakness."
I don't mean that I think Obama should deploy American Crusaders into the Land of the Nile to establish a liberal, pro-Western, American-style democracy. George W. Bush tried that in Iraq and we've seen how well that adventure turned out. That's not realism; that's hubris.
What I mean is that for a generation, the U.S. has generously bribed Egypt year in and year out for not again trying to invade Israel. And what Egypt has to show for our trouble is, well, zero, zilch, nada. Egypt has done next to nothing to further an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. And it has done nothing to improve the economic, social or political life of its people. Yet we persist in repeating what we've always done and expecting a different result.
Some would say that's a great definition of insanity. But that's what has passed for realism in our foreign policy in the Middle East.
Today's rationale for keeping the big bucks flowing to the Mubarak regime is that Egypt will play a major role in finally ending the Israel-Palestine disaster. Except that we've seen this movie before. We seem to have a knack for reaching out for the slenderest of reeds to hang onto.
During the years I lived in Cairo, I witnessed the rhetoric of the State-controlled media. It was and is institutionalized government propaganda - always anti-Israeli and often anti-Semitic. (Israel and the Palestinian Authority, of course, constantly add fuel to the fire with their own propaganda machines.)
But the Mubarak regime has repeatedly used the Israeli-Palestinian impasse as a fig-leaf to obscure its own monumental deficiencies - and later used Bush's "war on terror" mantra as an even more dramatic cover story. Does this sound like the job description of an honest broker?
I also read translations of some of the revisionist-history textbooks used in Egyptian schools - proclaiming, for example, Egypt's "victory" over the Israelis in Sinai. I talked with upper-class, well-educated college students and members of my own staff about the Holocaust. Some of them denied it altogether; others said it resulted in the destruction of only one million Jews.
And what's been done with all of our aid? Well, to say Egypt is an economic and political basket-case would be generous to basket-cases. Its continuing stagnation is the result of a toxic combination of overpopulation, lack of proper education and training, the effect of decades of failed economic policies, rampant corruption, and the absence of anything remotely resembling good governance.
Egypt has received more than $50 billion in military and economic aid from the United States since 1977, when it agreed to a peace treaty with Israel. Yet, long before the world collapsed into the current recession, unemployment in Egypt was off the charts - well over 10 per cent in most years. Kids who graduated from schools like Cairo University and the American University in Cairo - many with Master's degrees - were driving taxis for tourists. And now the tourism industry is on life support. Many other Egyptians have joined the growing brain-drain to Europe and North America.
And the worst is probably yet to come. The labor force is growing at a far faster rate than the demand for labor. So the future looks even bleaker for Egpyt's 80 million people.
In recent years, Mubarak and his Ministers have made countless speeches about entrepreneurism and how it is alive and well in Egypt. But entrepreurism appears to be only for those with lots of time on their hands. For example, what should be a relatively simple task of starting a new business can and does take months lost in the mother of all Byzantine bureaucracies. And if you happen to be one of those aspiring entrepreneurs, but you don't happen to belong to one of the country's "good families," you can forget about getting a loan from any bank. Banks in Egypt lend to people who don't need loans.
Corruption - a pandemic in the Middle East - is everywhere in Egypt. Some of it qualifies as petty corruption, like bribing the phone company manager to turn your phone on or paying off the supervisor at the police academy to say that you are three inches taller that you actually are to meet the Academy's requirements.
But there's also big-time corruption, like unlawfully importing toxic agricultural chemicals, and relabeling them to secure a higher mark-up. The American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt reports that corruption in the import-export supply chain adds about $30 to every single transaction. That makes Egypt uncompetitive and its Customs officials comfortable.