In other words, Egypt -- whether it is a democracy or not -- is a means to some other end. Washington is interested in Egyptian stability because it is interested in Saudi security, or the Iranian challenge, or Israel's well-being.
Now, as a new secretary of state prepares for his visit to post-Mubarak Egypt, there is hope for a renewal of ties. But once again, Americans are hard-pressed to articulate the underlying rationale for strategic alignment apart from the familiar formulations about peace and stability in the Middle East. Proposals to transform the relationship to "trade not aid" have never gotten much traction, and are hardly the bases for strategic ties. Likewise, explicit threats to cut aid in return for reform have had minimal impact on the trajectory of Egyptian politics.
Perhaps clarity of purpose in U.S. policy is impossible at a moment when Egyptian politics are so unsettled. It seems that sunk costs -- a total of around $75 billion since the mid-1970s -- bureaucratic inertia, and the fact that the Egyptians need the United States right now all account for the current loveless marriage.
It may just be that strategic alignment between Egypt and the United States represented a moment that has now passed. The U.S. investment in Cairo has brought benefits to Washington -- but now the best thing for the United States is not to try to mend the old strategic ties, but start anew. Obama got it right in May 2011 when he stated that Americans must look at what has happened in the Arab world with humility, but without abdicating their values. That means, in part, recognizing that Egyptians want a relationship not necessarily of equals -- that is impossible -- but one that is more respectful of the way they define their national interests.
This formulation quite rightly makes some Americans (and Israelis) nervous. But there's good news: Whatever comes to pass, Cairo is unlikely to align with Washington's enemies. Morsy's flirtations with Iran are about showing Egyptians that there is a difference between the Mubarak era and now. It is also about signaling to the Saudis that Cairo plans to be an influential player in the region. In the same way, the Egyptians have proven tougher on Hamas than many expected, refusing the organization's request to open an office in Cairo and flooding the tunnels that run under the Egypt-Gaza frontier, which have served as a critical Hamas supply line. And needless to say, the new Egypt still has no use for Hezbollah or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It is unlikely that there will be a dramatic change in Washington's approach to Cairo as a result of Kerry's visit. That is all right: Egypt is struggling with its own internal demons, and is in dire need of economic assistance. Yet when Kerry and Obama are not dealing with the Egyptian crisis of the moment, they will have accomplished much if they move U.S.-Egypt relations out from the straitjacket of outdated strategic ties to more normal relations, befitting the changes in Egypt and the region around it.
This requires that policymakers take the long view -- an alleged strength of the current administration -- and understand that a bit of distance between Washington and Cairo could be a good thing. And who knows, maybe some time apart will remind the two countries of why they got together in the first place.