Bob Bowker is a former Australian ambassador to Jordan and Egypt. He is now an Adjunct Professor at the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.

In the aftermath of the bloodbath of 14 August, the question of whether US military assistance (around US$1.3 billion per annum) should continue to be provided to Egypt is highly contentious.

Withdrawal of US military aid would have almost no impact on the behaviour of the Egyptian military on the domestic scene, nor would it have an obvious immediate impact on US interests where Israel is concerned. Such issues as may arise in regard to Israeli security, mainly in regard to the Sinai and Gaza, will continue to be managed between the respective military forces and intelligence agencies. The cost of suspending military assistance would be felt by certain elements of the Egyptian military's commercial interests linked to that program. However the impact would be borne mainly among US defence suppliers and their US-based production facilities.

Suspension of US military assistance would add to popular contempt for the US for its failure to provide what Egyptians regard as their due for keeping the peace with Israel. There may be threats to delay US military overflight and Suez Canal transit arrangements.

There would also be resentment of the failure to understand and support the determination of most ordinary Egyptians to be rid of President Morsi and to terminate the Muslim Brotherhood as a political player.

In reality, such responses would represent only an addition to an already antagonistic view of the US. The factors driving such antagonism are complex, deep-seated and beyond the capacity of the US military assistance programs to shape significantly.

The bitterness towards the US for its perceived sympathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood is mostly a reflection of the polarisation of Egyptian society. Egyptians have created that situation themselves, and no amount of external advice or pressure will change Egyptian politics. The policy choices confronting the US should therefore be based mainly on consideration of the wider effects of the US position on its interests and values. Egyptian reactions, both military and civilian, to those choices should represent a lesser order of US concerns.

The US approach can be calibrated to some extent — for example, continuing military training programs in the US so as not to lose contact with upcoming generations of military officers, as happened in Pakistan.

But if the US reaction to excessive use of violence against civilian demonstrators in Egypt is limited to rhetoric, the message to other Arab governments will be clear: the response from the Western world can be managed. Demonstrators in Bahrain, Yemen, the eastern region of Saudi Arabia and elsewhere may be subjected to repression by such means as their governments may deem necessary.

That may be no more than recognition of grim reality on all sides. But rejection of US counsel without consequences further diminishes respect for the US in the region and beyond. It will place lives at risk. Condemnatory rhetoric without action is an orchestra without instruments. It renders democratic rights and values irrelevant to the region's future. It also leaves the US on the wrong side of history, and at risk of losing its own respect for the values which made it great.

Photo by Flickr user sierragoddess.