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.
But that was really just more of the same American confusion. And frankly, it's not all Obama's fault. He, like his predecessors, is trying to resolve the
direct contradiction between America's current interests as the globe's only stabilizing superpower and America's historical role as the globe's foremost
champion of democracy and universal rights. On one hand, as the overseer of a stable international system, the United States has become largely a nation
of, by and for the status quo. But too often we find that, as in the Arab world, the opponents of the status quo are quoting our own ideals back to us. In
June 2002, for example, Bush declared that democracy was the answer to the ills in the Palestinian territories; when Hamas won the elections four years
later, Washington discovered that it had inadvertently set into motion utter paralysis of the peace process. In 2003, America launched a war to set up a
model Arab democracy, only to find that in the civil war and possible partitioning of Iraq (and possibly Syria too), participants like the Kurds have
rediscovered Woodrow Wilson's promise of self-determination from nearly a century ago. Thus the further fissuring of the old Middle East - which will
almost certainly lead to more bloodshed -- may be fueled too by American ideals.