First, by downplaying U.S. concerns about Morsy's maneuvering, the United States seems to have forgotten the most important lesson of the Arab uprisings: Usurping authority or trampling rights are not recipes for political stability. The scenes of outraged opposition in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt indicate that the Brotherhood cannot claim to represent Egypt by itself. Its efforts to do so bode ill for the country's future and have precipitated a climate where political contestation is now accompanied with overt threats and incendiary rhetoric.
An unstable Egypt led by repressive rulers is a bad bet for the United States -- from the perspective of values and interests. A chaotic transition has tested America's diplomatic patience, but that challenge pales in comparison to the prospect of chronic instability and civil strife. With Egypt's economic woes high on the list of worries faced by U.S. officials, it bears mentioning that economic reform and growth will never take root so long as the political process remains deadlocked.
Second, the American response was rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and a limited view of Egypt as a client state. While it is true that the treaty underpins U.S. security policy in the region, avoiding criticisms of Egypt's authoritarian tendencies does little to secure American interests.
For too long, the United States has seen the Egypt-Israel peace as perpetually vulnerable and sustainable only through American largesse. The peace between Egypt and Israel is a cold one, and it will undoubtedly become colder still. It is hampered by the unyielding occupation of Palestinian lands and the ever-expanding settlement project. With an Islamist-led government now in place in Egypt, the deep-seated anti-Israel sentiments of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological affinity for Islamist fellow-travelers such as Hamas will reshape regional dynamics. Egypt will undoubtedly play a greater role in championing the Palestinian cause, and future Egyptian governments will abandon the anti-Hamas policies long pursued by the Mubarak regime.
But despite the tangible shifts in atmospherics, symbolism, and policies, regime change in Egypt will not alter the underlying strategic interests that pushed Anwar Sadat to seek a separate peace with Egypt's bitter enemy. Partly, this is a function of the national security establishment's continued stewardship of the Israel portfolio. While the parameters of the pact struck between the president and his military are not formally enshrined or even fully defined, the military and intelligence services still bound the policy discussions on issues such as Gaza.
Most importantly, Morsy's pragmatism should not come as a surprise. It is a clear reflection of enduring national interests and the infeasibility of aggression towards Israel. The prohibitive costs of such conflict -- both materially and for Egypt's position in the international community -- mean that the fundamental bargain underlying this cold peace is far more durable than is commonly presumed. Rewarding Morsy for his pragmatic approach to the recent Gaza conflict is a case of offering inducements for a policy already decided.
In her November 2011 speech, Clinton declared that we "cannot have one set of policies to advance security in the here-and-now and another to promote democracy in a long run that never quite arrives." That long run is here. The United States retains influence, particularly in light of Egypt's dire need for multilateral financial assistance and diplomatic support. Conditioning aid and support is complicated and often over-hyped, but it is a much-needed shift that would represent a break from the blank checks so often given to Egypt's leaders.
With much of the judiciary on strike and the prospect of prolonged street protests high, Egypt's democratic future is in peril. While not foreordained, a slow drift toward illiberal majoritarianism is now distinctly possible, as is the attendant instability that is likely to ensue. Injecting the United States more prominently in the current crisis also comes with risks, especially in light of America's checkered history in Egypt. But given the United States' deep ties, the Obama administration should understand that the choice between values and interests is a false one in this instance.
If America acquiesces anew to authoritarian behavior in Cairo, it won't win a new stable ally; it will only further alienate the many Egyptians who find the transactional nature of U.S.-Egyptian ties repugnant. Even worse, it will encourage a destructive political culture that provides an unstable foundation for future relations.