The changing of the guard at the Department of State, along with President Barack Obama's having won what will probably be his last election, should mean that America will have a less cautious, more forward-leaning foreign policy in Mr. Obama's second term than it did during his first.
There has been little criticism of outgoing Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton for a variety of reasons. One was the courageousness of both Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton in working more or less in tandem after having duked it out so vigorously during the 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination. Second was the hard work that Ms. Clinton so clearly put in. Trips to 112 countries, ceasing only when she fell and hit her head, were clear evidence of her attentiveness in minding the traps.
On the other hand, even Steve Kroft, the pitty-pat interviewer in the joint appearance Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton made Sunday night on the TV show "60 Minutes," noted correctly that there had been "no big, singular achievement" for the two to hang on the wall after their four years of working together on America's foreign policy. (Ms. Clinton didn't shoot Osama bin Laden.)
Mr. Obama claimed Libya. It would be hard to miss the demise of Moammar Gadhafi, but claiming Libya as a major success is a stretch given the mess it has become. Various diplomatic missions have now closed in Benghazi because it is too dangerous. The recent raid into Algeria that resulted in the deaths of 37 foreign hostages almost certainly came through a lawless Libya.
America's foreign policy under Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton could be described as "nothing ventured, nothing gained." There was a good reason, although it was more personal in basis than rooted in what was best for America.
That reason was that both were future candidates for office. Mr. Obama faced reelection in 2012. Ms. Clinton was protecting her option to run for president in 2016. Neither was prepared to run the risk of tackling the big issues that, if resolved, would have won them trophies on America's foreign policy wall. The truth of that is revealed in the success of President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in opening China. Mr. Nixon's name is blackened by the Watergate scandal and his resignation. Mr. Kissinger's reputation is marred by his manifestations of ego, the bombing of Cambodia and the self-serving lies in his books. But both are generally cited admiringly for their work on China.
Perhaps Mr. Obama's second-term foreign policies will be bolder and more inventive. Mr. Obama has been reelected. Ms. Clinton can do what she likes with respect to future presidential elections. Sen. John Kerry, scheduled to succeed Ms. Clinton, lost badly enough in 2004 that he almost certainly has no further presidential ambitions.
There are risks in adopting bold American foreign policies. There are also risks in not tackling some of the nastier problems facing America and the world. Let's look at some of the ones Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry could take on if they decide to be vigorous and forward-leaning.
They could put Israeli-Palestinian negotiations back on the rails and pursue them to a conclusion, putting in place an independent Israel and an independent Palestine, both recognized and secure.
The need is obvious. Israel's future as a Jewish state is threatened by the disproportionate growth of its Arab population. The countries surrounding Israel, along with Palestinian Gaza and the West Bank, are becoming more hostile to Israel by the day.
Israel's situation is precarious, putting the entire Middle East at risk. Given its relationship with Israel and need for Middle Eastern oil, the United States can't afford a regional explosion. So, even if returning to negotiations means that Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry risk being rejected and reviled, they have to do it.
Another big problem is the long quarrel between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. It costs both countries a lot in money and distraction. Both are nuclear powers so they can't be left to just fight it out.
The United States has improved its relations with India, whose focus is economic progress. Fixing things with Pakistan would require stopping U.S. drone attacks and maintaining U.S. aid levels. The coming withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, scheduled for 2014, will provide Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry an opening. Both India and Pakistan are prickly and proud, so tackling the most sensitive foreign policy question between them will not be easy. But they desire good relations with the United States, so there is room to work.
Other troubled waters in which an American president and secretary of state could fish usefully include China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Russia. Turkey, carrying the ball for the world in Syria, could do with much more attention from us. The Sunni Arab states should not be allowed to get away with backing Islamic extremists while sheltering under the American defense umbrella in the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry are now free as birds in terms of protecting their reputations for future elections. It's time for them to ride out -- first, for their country, second, for their legacies as American leaders. Besides, none of this diplomacy stuff costs real money.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).