Legend has it that Gilbert and Sullivan created their greatest work, The Mikado, when the latter (who did the music) became exasperated with the plots the former was offering — Sullivan shouting that he was “tired of topsy-turvy”.

In the area of US foreign policy, your correspondent is beginning to feel the same way. I see an administration trying to pull back from grand notions that the US has some deep spiritual-political mission in the world, and instead running a more hybrid policy mixing old-fashioned imperialism with greater disengagement elsewhere. Others from both left and right seem to be tying on the bandanas and punching the air.

Take the coverage of Joe Biden’s recent comments about Israel and Iran. Media around the world were screaming that Biden had given the green light for an attack on Iran in his interview on This Week with George Stephanopolous. The pulled quote read: “If the Netanyahu Government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.”

Wow, there must have been more to it than that, one thought, because that seems a fairly standard statement of international relations. The full exchange read:

STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it pretty clear that he agreed with President Obama to give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement to work. After that, he’s prepared to make matters into his own hands. Is that the right approach?

BIDEN: Look, Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether we agree or not?

BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They’re entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behaviour as to how to proceed.  What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues. If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?

BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they’re existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You say we can’t dictate, but we can, if we choose to, deny over-flight rights here in Iraq. We can stand in the way of a military strike.

BIDEN: I’m not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what’s in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what’s in our interests.

That exchange reads to me like a VP trying to undo the assumption that the US has to have some special relationship to Israel, not confirm it. It is nothing more than a statement of standard Westphalia treaty sovereignty — that a nation (and Biden emphasises that this applies to any sovereign nation) has a right to launch an attack under clear conditions of threat.

Such a right has always been recognised. Biden is just summarising international law, and making clear — quite significantly I would have thought – that the US would keep its options open in the event of such an act.

What the US would do in such a situation would be determined less by such noble principles than by a sleazy calculus of foreign policy and domestic concern for the Jewish vote (the US losing influence in the mid-east is one thing, but the Democrats losing New York would be the real disaster). But it is the words themselves that are being misconstructed.

Why is this occurring? Israel is claiming them as support, but Mandy Rice-Davies*. The media is claiming them as pro-Israel because it seems to want to portray it as a Biden gaffe, even though the exchange seems carefully put.

In recent matters concerning Iran, Latin America, and Israel, the focus of the Obama administration has been to systematically withdraw any narrative by which America takes on the role of natural arbiter of what is right, some abstract embodiment of the good floating above its own interests.

This is surely a positive step, even though real disengagement – in the form of reduced or discontinued military aid — is a step yet to be taken. I’d prefer a US with a more minimal and realist foreign policy than one which simply switches from backing the neocons’ preferred winners, to a set I’m happier with.

That point comes out clearly in the issue of Honduras, where I have to disagree with m’esteemed colleague Jeff Sparrow about what the US should do, or have done. The suggestion that the US might have headed off the coup — which appears to have been an open secret in Honduras for days — seems exactly the sort of interference not wanted. It appears that the US military liaison within Honduras tried to dissuade the military from taking this step, but would one really want a pre-emptive act against a struggle going on within Honduran politics?

With the country having a shotgun constitution, and Zelaya trying to — possibly “legally”, possibly not — start to reform the basis of politics, the event is a mess of populism, social movements, and fundamental self-re-definition by a country. The best thing the US can do is, as much as possible, not pick sides — though part of not picking sides obviously involves suspension of military aid at some point.

One can’t really demand that Obama take a nuanced approach to sovereignty in Iran, and then dictate terms in Honduras. Nothing I’ve seen in the torrent of articles in places like Counterpunch suggests any strong evidence of US support for the Honduran military establishment putsch (save for neocon barracking) — though some may yet emerge, especially if it turns out that there are rogue elements who don’t like Obama’s make-nice approach. Foreknowledge is not a smoking gun, as there is hardly any way the US could not have it. What you do with the foreknowledge is what counts.

“Fortunately” for anyone really suffering from the complexities of the above, there’s Afghanistan, where imperial right is being exercised without compunction — the only difference being that Obama is proving to be a much smarter and more effective commander-in-chief. No topsy turvy there, unless your family has been killed by a drone, designed to advance universal values. Talk about your lord high executioner.

*They would say that, wouldn’t they?