But the larger point is that ElBaradei, no matter how comparatively favorable he may look now as a secular technocrat (particularly against radical Islamist alternatives), is never going to be “America’s guy” in Cairo. As the future of Egypt hangs in the balance, neither ElBaradei nor the odd mix of authoritarian-democratic voices emerging in Egypt and the Arab world have any patience for Washington’s meddling. They are largely beyond our control and will stay that way.

Despite the debate going on in Washington over what the Obama administration could or should do to shape the outcome, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can do more than affect things on the margins, even with $1 billion-plus in aid as “leverage.” The Egyptian army’s ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Robert Satloff wrote in The Washington Post last week, “gives the Obama administration that rarest of opportunities in foreign policy: a second chance.”

Not really. This is, for the most part, a silly, trumped-up discussion. Certainly, the administration could have done a better job of standing up for its principles consistently during the two-and-a-half-year course of the “Arab Spring.” Though U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson presciently warned ousted President Mohamed Morsi, in a speech back in February, that he was on the verge of failing economically and politically, she also became the Messenger of Hedged Bets, finding herself blamed on both the secular and Islamist sides for trying to work with both. In this Patterson was only reflecting the wishes of President Obama, who appeared to support Morsi in the shallow, realpolitik way he once dealt with Hosni Mubarak—seeking to cultivate a friendly government-to-government alliance while paying lip service to democracy and human rights.