Was it madness, strategic illiteracy or personal sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood that prompted Wednesday's startling announcement that President Obama has decided to slash American support to the Egyptian military? Whatever the rationale, his spectacularly ill-advised decision reverses a generation of American statecraft and threatens the peace of an already unstable region.
Ordered by the president himself, the policy review began soon after Egypt's generals reacted to a popular uprising by overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of Mohammed Morsi. Though freely elected, the Muslim Brotherhood routinely acted as though killings, brutality and thuggish behavior were religious obligations. Meanwhile, Mr. Morsi grabbed every lever of power within reach, but couldn't make the trains run on time. When 30 million Egyptians took to the streets in July to demand Mr. Morsi's ouster, Egypt's top generals arrested him. They thus undid Egypt's first popular election in 5,000 years and set the stage for the American aid cutoff.
But every story has two sides. Egypt's well-respected foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, has publicly compared the election of Mohammed Morsi to that of Adolf Hitler. So which is more accurate: the perceptions of the Obama administration — or the realities of the Cairo street?
As recounted in these pages, I recently joined a Westminster Institute delegation, the first private group of American military and media analysts to enter Egypt since last summer's unrest. We bypassed the pyramids, but talked extensively with generals, journalists, religious leaders and student revolutionaries. Most argued strongly that Mr. Morsi's overthrow was not a classic military coup d'etat, but the continuation of Egypt's ongoing democratic experiment.
Reinforcing their points was our encounter with Amr Moussa, head of the group now charged with writing Egypt's new constitution. He began by pointing out that the old constitution — 90 percent of it drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood — mysteriously omitted any impeachment provisions: "So what other choice did we have?" If Mr. Morsi's worst sin was "interfering with civil society" in the name of Islam, Mr. Moussa described his main effort as systematic democratic inclusion. Not only will religious toleration and separation of powers be established, but each sector of Egyptian society will be represented. At the end of this 6- to 9-month process, the new constitution will be submitted to a general referendum — followed by parliamentary elections.
I recalled his words while listening to Wednesday's magnificent condescension by the State Department spokeswoman. She promised that American aid might be restored if Egypt makes satisfactory progress in restoring democracy. Oh, really? Compared to what — Chicago? Actually, the real reason for the American aid cutoff has nothing to do with supporting the democratic reforms that Egyptians are already building quite nicely for themselves. Instead, the Obama administration, almost from its inception, has been suspiciously supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and oddly tolerant of its bizarre policy objectives. Remember when James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood was essentially a misunderstood Egyptian equivalent of the Rotary Club? The intimate connections between the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda are well understood, and Mr. Clapper is no fool; but he understands all too well how dangerous it is for an intelligence officer to be right when his president is so conspicuously wrong.
Because Egypt is the strategic linchpin of the region — as important to peace with Israel as it is to stability throughout Africa — expect the Russians to be aggressive in recapturing influence lost after the Camp David Accords secured Egypt's position as a key American ally. With characteristically adept footwork, Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to pick up the pieces left scattered across the Middle East chessboard by an administration as intent on adhering to its adversaries as it is to leading from behind. Assessing the Obama administration's dismal performance from Libya to Syria, K.T. MacFarland on Fox News convincingly argues that the next great American debate will be "Who lost the Middle East?"
Think the price of gas is high right now? Then what happens if Middle East oil supplies are disrupted by military pressures against the Suez Canal? Speaking of the Canal: What happens if our Navy's privileged access to that vital seaway is lost because of Egyptian displeasure over being cut off? And what might happen should Israel suddenly face the prospect of defending a front left relatively peaceful since the 1973 Yom Kippur War?
One last thing: Egypt will shortly be bringing Mohammed Morsi to trial. With Wednesday's aid cutoff, Mr. Obama has given his Egyptian counterparts every incentive to reveal secret dealings and maybe even White House complicity in the rise of Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood — as well as any high crimes, misdemeanors or other madness that may have been committed.
Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.