For some reason perhaps it's arrogance or inflated self-importance - the American government feels compelled to comment on anything taking place anywhere in the world. As a result, it's beginning to sound like a common scold and an international nanny.
Washington's open-mouth policy was much in evidence during Romania's crisis last week. In one case its utterances seemed fatuous; in another, dangerous to innocent people.After the new Romanian government caught, swiftly tried and executed the despotic Nicolae Ceausescu, the White House was inspired to a pettifogging legalism: The United States "regrets" that the trial "did not take place in an open and public fashion."
Goodness. A tyrant and mass murderer torments Romanians for 24 years. They finally rise up and quickly eliminate him. Meanwhile, his fanatically loyal secret police fight to restore him to power. His death demoralizes his followers, undermines their counter-revolution and thus saves countless lives.
And the White House? It appears to regret that Ceausescu wasn't read his Miranda rights, provided with a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union and given endless chances to appeal his sentence to the Supreme Court.
This was merely silly. But on a TV talk show, Secretary of State James Baker said something that could prove lethal: The United States wouldn't object if the Warsaw Pact - meaning the Soviet Union - sent troops into Romania to support the army and people against Ceausescu's security forces.
Fortunately, Mikhail Gorbachev sent medicine, not the Red Army, and the good guys prevailed in Bucharest without the help of Big Brother's tanks.
But think of the Pandora's box opened by Baker's musings: Eastern Europe is still Moscow's sphere of influence. Thus it can intervene there to rescue reformers in Romania - and later, perhaps, to install anti-reformers in, say, East Germany?
The first victims of Baker's doctrine (do it your own way, Mikhail) could be the once-independent Baltic states, now seeking to exercise their right to secession under the Soviet constitution.
To say that Gorbachev is angry about the Baltic challenge is an understatement. At a Central Committee meeting called to discuss the Lithuanian Communist Party's split from the Soviet party, he fell into a rage.
"I am convinced," he roared, "that nowadays to exercise self-determination through secession is to blow apart the union, to pit peoples against one another and to sow discord, bloodshed and death."
After the meeting, Vadim Medvedev, the party's ideology chief, significantly refused to rule out the use of force against Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and other freedom-minded ethnic republics. If the tanks do roll, Baker (a sorcerer's apprentice?) will find it hard to deny that his careless words eased Gorbachev's choice of violence.
At one point in Gorbachev's tirade, Vice President Anatoly Lukyanov had to urge him to calm down. That should be a warning to Western governments that have invested so much hope in Gorbachev: Though he is only 58, he is overweight, overworked, overwrought and perhaps a candidate for a stroke.
The message to the White House is clear. Instead of spending time and energy on pontificating on each foreign happening, it ought to be drawing up contingency plans for dealing with a post-Gorbachev Kremlin, which could differ greatly from his.
(B.J. Cutler is foreign affairs columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.)