Cutting off a significant amount of U.S. aid to the Egyptian military -- a step the White House is considering this week, according to several reports -- may be a moral necessity. The Egyptian military seems unwilling to use tear gas on demonstrators when the opportunity to shoot opponents in the head presents itself, and it did, in fact, initiate a coup in July against a democratically elected government (albeit one that governed undemocratically and was the target of popular rage).
But curtailing aid raises some difficult questions for U.S. allies in the region, for the Middle East peace process and for American national security. It also raises a question about the utility of half-measures -- because partially cutting off aid would mainly be a gesture of disapproval, rather than a profound shift in policy designed to move Egypt onto a different path.
American allies in the region -- notably Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain -- all share the same adversaries as the Egyptian leadership, which is to say: Shia radicalism (in the form of the Iranian regime and Hezbollah); the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian military is brutally suppressing (mind you, with the support of millions of anti-Brotherhood Egyptians); and Sunni extremism (in the form of al-Qaeda and like-minded groups, including those currently terrorizing the Sinai Peninsula).
U.S. allies already don't trust the friendship of President Barack Obama's administration. And they -- the Arabs in particular, less so the Israelis -- fear that they'll be pushed aside in favor of either a more isolationist approach to the world or, worse, an American rapprochement with Iran, which they don't trust at all. Obviously, the opportunities here for meddlesome would-be superpowers -- Russia, most notably -- also loom large in the minds of nervous allies.
Another cause for concern: the effect this move would have on peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Egypt is pressing hard against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, cutting off the flow of weapons and sealing smuggling tunnels. A weak Hamas is in the best interests of the U.S., Israel and, most important, the rival Palestinian Authority, with which Israel is currently negotiating under U.S. supervision.
It doesn't make much sense from Israel's perspective -- or from the perspective of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- to punish the Egyptian military while it's helping to create conditions on the ground that might hurt Hamas. On the one hand, Hamas is doing a reasonable job of suppressing rogue elements that want to ignite a new conflict with Israel. On the other, Hamas is still Hamas, opposed to Israel's existence and certainly opposed to progress on a two-state solution (however chimerical that idea might be at the moment).
And then there's the Sinai Peninsula. The Obama administration presumably won't be cutting off Egypt's counterterrorism aid, which it is using to wage a struggle against al-Qaeda-like groups in the Sinai. But alienating generals who are currently acting in the national-security interests of the U.S. could be interpreted as shortsighted. Preventing the region from descending into chaos is an important task in the fight against Islamist extremism.
It is, however, in Egypt's interest to contain Hamas and fight Islamist terror, whether the U.S. helps with direct military aid or not. And the Obama administration knows this.
Eleven years ago, in a famous speech opposing the Iraq War, Obama said: "Let's fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies, so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells."
This remains Obama's baseline thinking about the Middle East. And the danger in suspending aid to Egypt, above all other dangers, is that Obama, by signaling that he will act aggressively against Arab autocrats, might provide Islamists with a glimmer of hope at a time when they're generally back on their heels. Certainly, the opponents of such American friends as the king of Jordan would be pleased by this latest act of an administration that many already believe is naive about the nature of Islamic terrorism.
Here's an easy prediction to make: No one at all will be particularly happy with this decision.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)