In fact, any punitive action would be the purest of moral gestures. First of all, since the new regime's Gulf backers will probably make up for any shortfall in Western assistance, the threat is almost meaningless. Second, no one's listening. In the Mubarak era, threatening aid would have signaled to activists and protestors that Washington stood with them. But yesterday's activists are today's apologists for mass murder; just read the repellent statement of support for the assaults issued by the National Salvation Front, the aptly named civilian façade for Egypt's new military rulers. There is no one in Egypt to whom to send a signal. A consequentialist would thus ask: Why bother?
The answer is that silence has consequences too. To register nothing more than disappointment in the face of a military coup, the arrest and imminent trial of overthrown leaders, and the killing of hundreds of civilians is to make a very blunt statement about the relative importance the United States gives to democracy and human rights, on the one hand, and national interests, narrowly construed, on the other. It is the message the elder George Bush, a master of consequentialism, gave when he restored regular working relations with China soon after the massacre at Tiananmen Square. The signal was meant for the Chinese leadership, but it was heard loud and clear by both dictators and ordinary citizens the world over. What they understood is that Washington was prepared to overlook any amount of bloodshed in order to resume relations with an important ally.
Statesmen, of course, must make painful choices that look ugly from the outside. The United States does not criticize Saudi Arabia's appallingly repressive regime for the same reason it used to pull its punches on Mubarak's Egypt: It wouldn't help, and there are other fish to fry. But Saudi oppression is a steady state, and Egypt has just engaged in an orgy of brutality that has riveted the world's attention. The United States cannot look away and pivot to Asia on this one. On the other side of the balance, if the U.S. were to withdraw its support, Egypt would still be very unlikely to change its pro-Western regional posture -- which is a matter of national self-interest. Thus if there is little to be gained by the moral gesture, neither is there much to be lost by it. Even a cool-headed calculating consequentialist might then pull the plug.
If that's so, why does Obama continue to behave as if he has the wisdom and maturity to deny himself a cheap thrill? Perhaps because the experience of the last four-plus years has so thoroughly imbued him with a sense of the intransigence of the world, and the limits of American power, that he now automatically defaults to the more modest option. Bush-the-elder was born a realist; Obama is a convert. He has explained his reluctance to intervene forcefully in Syria by asking why he should act there and not in the Congo, where even more people have been killed -- a strangely rhetorical question from a man who has embraced the principle that states have a responsibility to protect citizens from mass atrocities. And this, too, is a signal -- and not one the Barack Obama of 2008 would ever have expected to send.
I would like to say that suspending aid to Egypt is now in America's national interest. Maybe it's not; maybe it's a wash. So I will say instead that it has become a matter of national self-respect. Democracies have to be able to look at themselves in the mirror, and to accept, if not like, what they see. That is why the message we send to Egypt is not an indulgence, but a necessity.