President Barack Obama's first TV interview was with the Dubai-based, partly Saudi-funded Al Arabiya satellite channel. In passing, he faulted past American policy for too readily "dictating" in the Middle East. He had better things to say about Saudi King Abdullah's "courage" in trying to solve the Middle East crisis.
Vice President Joe Biden likewise has promised the world a sharp break from the prior Bush administration that, from his references, was apparently to blame for bouts of anti-Americanism abroad. He assured the Europeans at the Munich Security Conference that it was time to press the reset button in foreign policy, and pledged a new chapter in America's overseas relations.
On her initial tour abroad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton re-emphasized the Obama and Biden message, announcing that she would follow an approach that "values what others have to say." And then Clinton elaborated on this now well-worn "blame Bush" theme: "Too often in the recent past, our government has acted reflexively before considering available facts and evidence or hearing the perspectives of others." America, Clinton promised, from now on would be "neither impulsive nor ideological."
Contrast such admirable talk with recent events:
North Korea has just announced that it plans to launch a new Taepodong-2 missile capable of reaching the United States.
China, which holds hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. Treasury bonds and will be asked to loan us billions more, advised the Obama administration to drop the "buy American" talk in the new Democratic stimulus program.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently bragged that his country would soon go nuclear, and that President Obama's offer to talk without preconditions revealed a new passivity in the West.
Russia just announced that it had developed a new strategic relationship with Iran, and warned that American-sponsored missile defense for Eastern Europe was unpalatable.
About the same time, the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, on Russian advice, disclosed that it may no longer allow Americans to use a base in their country to supply the war effort in Afghanistan.
Pakistan just released from house arrest A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, who had sold nuclear technologies to the likes of Libya and North Korea.
This rather provocative behavior reminds us that President Obama's laudable assurances of a new age of American diplomacy may often be ignored or exploited rather than always appreciated. North Korea, for example, may agree with Hillary Clinton's criticism of the United States the last eight years and thereby announce to her that it feels less obligated to keep promises once made with an "impulsive" United States.
European governments in France, Germany, Italy and most of Eastern Europe have long been pro-American. India is friendly; so is most of Asia. Africa has received billions of dollars in recent American help to combat AIDS.
These friends of ours., despite their serial complaining about the U.S., may privately be worrying that a kinder, more eloquent antithesis to George Bush will lead to too much dialogue and not enough leadership. After all, the agendas of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong Il, the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, Vladimir Putin and other roguish leaders transcend the Bush presidency.
We have already learned from Barack Obama's adjustments from his original positions on the Patriot Act , the FISA accords, the surge and overseas rendition that often the past administration faced only bad choices which were easier to criticize as a candidate than to reject outright as president.
Now, by so loudly broadcasting a near-divine morality, rather than just quietly putting its own imprint on us foreign policy, the Obama administration only sets itself up for the charge of hypocrisy.
True, it is wise to drop the unnecessary smoke-'em out dead-or-alive lingo that sometimes characterized the Bush administration. But it would be foolish to reject many of its successful initiatives simply because they were poorly articulated or sometimes couched in unfortunate tough-guy rhetoric.
The last president to promise such a grandiose break from the American past was Jimmy Carter. As he entered office in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam age, he lectured the world about human rights. Carter promised an end to America's inordinate fears of communism, and vowed to show more kindness abroad and as recompense earned in a mere three years the Soviets in Afghanistan, communist insurgencies in Central America, and American hostages in Tehran.
Given the depressing nature of the world abroad, the more we now keep promising to be gentle, the bigger the stick later on we will have to carry.