One of President Obama's first official acts was to grant an interview to Al Arabiya, the Arabic language network that broadcasts worldwide. It signified, aides explained, the new page that Obama meant to turn in relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Just as he did last week in Europe, Obama began the conversation by criticizing America. Asked about relations between Israel and the Palestinians and the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy, President Obama said " ... what I told (Mitchell) is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating -- in the past on some of these issues -- and we don't always know all the factors that are involved. So let's listen." Throughout the rest of the interview, Obama returned again and again to the word "respect," stressing that his administration -- unlike previous American presidents -- would base relations with the Muslim world on "mutual respect."
In Europe, the president returned to this leitmotif, telling his audience that "there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive" toward Europe. He went on to note that Europeans had responded with an anti-Americanism that "is at once casual but can also be insidious." That sounds awfully high-mindedly evenhanded -- except that in Obama's telling, America's arrogance comes first. If that were truly the case, who could blame the Europeans for feeling resentful?
Don't hold your breath waiting for any European to acknowledge that they have been guilty of arrogance. And before giving Obama too much credit for humility, consider that the planted axiom of these declarations is that he is different. It was that ham-handed predecessor of his who blundered through the world, disrespecting allies, needlessly insulting enemies, and crashing through drawing rooms like the proverbial bull, or perhaps like a Texas steer. But as former Ambassador John Bolton reminds us, during the glory days of the Clinton administration, French President Francois Mitterrand said this: "We are at war with America-- a permanent war ... a war without death. They are very hard, the Americans. They are voracious. They want undivided power over the world." Compared with that, the most stinging rebuke to come out of the Bush administration -- Rumsfeld's swipe about "old Europe" -- seems downright polite.