Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Cairo Tuesday on the first stop of a trip aimed at addressing the delicate issue of Hamas - with decisions pending on dealing with the Palestinian Authority that are as portentous as almost any the Bush administration has made on Middle East affairs.
How the administration handles the militant group's role in a Palestinian government will permeate President Bush's democratization program for the Middle East. Repercussions from the US response to Hamas's rise to government will spill over into Iraq, while playing an important role in America's image in the region.
And if the United States gets the Hamas riddle wrong, it could set back the war on terror by buoying the cause of Islamic radicalism across the Muslim world.
"The ramifications of how the US handles the Hamas dilemma are huge, and it's all the more complicated because the [Hamas] victory puts everyone in an uncharted place," says David Makovsky, director of the project on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "No one has something in their drawer they can pull out and say, 'Look, here's the answer.' "
Secretary Rice, first in Egypt, then travels to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In each stop, she will keep the onus on Hamas - an organization on the US list of foreign terrorist groups that assumed control of the Palestinians' legislative branch Saturday after winning elections in January. Her aim will be to maintain international unity behind the principle of cooperation with a Hamas-led Palestinian government, but only if the organization renounces its goal of Israel's destruction.
Earlier this month the so-called Quartet of powers working to advance the Middle East peace process - the US, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations - issued a statement holding Hamas to three requirements if it expects cooperation from the international community: It must recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence against Israel, and uphold commitments made by the Palestinian Authority in the peace process.
Those principles will provide the "basis" for Rice's discussions with Arab leaders, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. Insisting the Palestinians voted their hopes for a "better way of life," he says "Hamas has a choice to make" between its longstanding radical goals and violent methods "and meet[ing] the aspirations of the Palestinian people."
Yet while the onus may be on Hamas, the situation nevertheless presents the US with a number of problems it can't afford to get wrong, say foreign-policy experts.
For one thing, while no one expects the US to recognize and cooperate with a government led by a party it considers a terrorist organization, there is the risk of the US looking like a "heavy" that causes either a collapse of the Palestinian Authority or a humanitarian crisis.
Already the US has demanded that the Palestinian Authority return $50 million provided for improving conditions in Gaza after President Mahmoud Abbas visited Mr. Bush in Washington last year. Administration officials say the US does not want to run the risk of the unspent money falling into terrorist hands. But moderate Palestinians worry such actions will undermine support for Mr. Abbas, who is said to be dismayed by the US decision.
The US is "reviewing" other aid to the Palestinians, which totals more than $200 million between direct assistance and aid disbursed through the UN, State Department officials say. The announced review is designed to pressure Hamas into publicly changing its goals - a move it so far does not seem willing to make.
The only thing worse than having the US appear as the force behind a Hamas collapse and Palestinian turmoil would be for the US and Israel to appear as cohorts in a destabilization scheme, some experts say. "If [the US and Israel] are seen as the cause for undermining Hamas, they will keep Hamas in power," says Stephen Cohen, national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum in Washington.
The US should think back to the 1950s - and the impact of its undermining of one Iranian regime in favor of installing the shah - before taking any action designed to deliver a preferred Palestinian government such as a return of Fatah, Mr. Cohen says. If the "advocate of democracy" were seen as working with Israel to topple Hamas, "we will be in a position of further delegitimizing Fatah in a terminal way," he says.
Yet as important as it may be to avoid the appearance of causing Hamas's failure, the US must also work to make sure that other countries do not simply pick up whatever financial shortfall the Palestinian Authority experiences because of an unchanged and defiant Hamas. That is one reason for Rice's multiple stops on the trip.
Already some cracks are showing in the international community's response. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who does not consider the Islamist group a terrorist organization, has announced plans to receive Hamas leaders. Last week exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal visited Ankara with the blessing of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who equated Hamas's rise through elections to that of his own Islamist party.
How the US responds will also have a deep impact on democratization efforts in the region. Rice will thank the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for its quick insistence that Hamas recognize Israel. But will the US appreciation also lead the US to overlook Egypt's foot-dragging on steps toward a more open political system, some experts wonder?
On her trip, Rice will emphasize "continuing and unwavering [US] support for the spread of democracy in the Middle East," according to her spokesman.
Despite such assurances, the administration's vision for a democratic Middle East cries out for an overhaul after the Hamas victory, some experts say.
"Saying the Hamas victory points out a lack of ripeness is not to say that democracy is not important for the Middle East, but rather that it's too important to reduce to elections and hope for the best," says Mr. Makovsky of the Washington Institute. "The point is that you need to do the spadework first, the institutional groundwork that creates the foundation of a working democracy."