The Obama administration was caught flatfooted Wednesday when Egyptian security forces violently imposed military law, prompting the resignation of the country's vice president and a myriad of questions for which the White House had no answer.
At least 280 people were killed after the police and military stormed sit-ins staged by protesters sympathetic to ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. In response, interim Vice President Mohamed El Baradei resigned, saying he could not condone such violence.
President Obama's top aides vowed to hold Egypt's interim leaders accountable but could not provide any sort of blueprint for how they would do so.
The day's events confirmed what many have long feared: The U.S. has virtually no control over what happens in Egypt.
Some said the administration created its own quandary, pointing to a scattered game plan for how to deal with Egypt. The White House's strategy of backing embattled leaders in the name of preserving stability -- first dictator Hosni Mubarak, then Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president, and now military-backed interim President Adly Mansour -- blew up in its face.
Even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently dispatched by the White House to visit Egypt, ripped the Obama administration's handling of the situation.
"As we predicted and feared, chaos in Cairo," McCain said on Twitter. "Sec Kerry praising the military takeover didn't help."
Earlier this month, Kerry said the Egyptian military was "restoring democracy," before walking back comments that appear especially tone deaf in the wake of the latest violence. On Wednesday, he said the crackdown on protests dealt a "serious blow" to reconciliation efforts but did not take any questions from reporters about how the administration would reprimand Egyptian leaders.
A growing chorus of critics is calling on the administration to halt aid to Egypt, but White House officials Wednesday refused to characterize the government takeover as a coup. Doing so would cut off the $1.3 billion the U.S. annually gives to Egypt.
"President Obama should follow existing law by ending the flow of American taxpayer funds to Egypt's military, which is using brute force to impose its will without regard to the results of the first free elections in that nation's history," the Council on American-Islamic Relations said, imploring Obama to respond to the crisis more forcefully.
Thus far, the administration has held back on delivering four F-16 fighter planes to Egypt but imposed no other concrete punishments, coming well short of the penalties demanded by critics.
And as Egypt burned Wednesday, Obama chose to stay away from the cameras, continuing his weeklong vacation on Martha's Vineyard.
Foreign policy, which once served as an area of refuge for the president, has now become every bit as troublesome as a litany of domestic issues. Paired with an unending civil war in Syria and an increasingly strained relationship with Russia, the White House is at risk of being overwhelmed by events on the world stage.
And some lawmakers questioned whether Egypt had already started down an irreversible path.
"I fear that without a quick reversal of current trends, Egypt may be on its way to becoming a failed state," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "A failed state in Egypt is al Qaeda's dream come true. Egypt, which has been a source of stability for American national security interests, could become a platform for the spread of radical Islam."