WASHINGTON -- Ever since Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009, his foreign policy has been driven in large part by a determination to reverse that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who put the United States on a reckless course of interventionism abroad.
Obama from the outset vowed to extract the U.S. from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq he inherited, and to channel American foreign policy engagements back through international diplomatic institutions of collective action, effective during the long Cold War.
Nobel Peace Prize that many thought premature at best. He accepted it with an equally surprising defense of the concept of "just wars" when humanitarian or other considerations warranted.
Now he is faced with such a dilemma in how to respond to the alleged use chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria in its civil war against a mixed bag of insurgents. Comparisons with the run-up to the Iraq war are rife, particularly on the matter of timing. In 2003, Bush declined to wait for U.N. inspectors to verify the presence of such weapons in Iraq before launching an essentially unilateral attack on the forces of Saddam Hussein.
At this writing, the results of similar U.N. inspections in Syria are at play. Some in Congress demand that Obama, unlike Bush in 2003, hold off and await inspection results before taking any military action. Even then, his critics have said, he should first seek both congressional and U.N. authorization.
Strong memories remain of the fiasco Bush created by asserting the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, only to acknowledge subsequently that his intelligence was wrong and they never existed. This history may account for last week's rejection by the British parliament of Prime Minister David Cameron's request for authorization to commit Britain to joining in U.S. punitive action against the Assad regime, pending the latest U.N. inspector reports.
In 2003, after no WMDs were found in Iraq, Bush was asked in an ABC News interview about their absence. He replied: "So what's the difference?" Citing "the possibility" that Saddam could have acquired them, Bush concluded that "after 12 long years of the world saying the man's a danger ... we got rid of him."
The "difference" is that in the wake of that credibility-shattering intelligence failure, Obama has a particular burden this time. He is called upon to offer irrefutable evidence that such weapons were used in Syria by the Assad regime, and that there is a basis in international law for U.S. intervention.
Memory also recalls then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's pitch to the U.N. contending existence the WMDs, an address Powell later described as a regrettable "blot" on his record. Bush also claimed the legitimate grounds of self-defense for American intervention under the U.N. Charter, suggesting such weapons could be used against the United States. This time around, it seems particularly far-fetched to make the same claim when the Assad regime has its hands full with its own civil war.
In all, even the most surgical U.S. strike against Syria without congressional authorization inevitably undermines Obama's efforts to separate himself and American foreign policy from the course set by Bush, which damaged American credibility with most of the international diplomatic community.
Embarking on such a course risks further alienating Obama's allies abroad as well as many liberals in his own Democratic Party. They have become increasingly disenchanted with him, basically asking themselves what the difference is between his foreign policy and Bush's.
Obama made a mistake in drawing "a red line" on use of chemical weapons in Syria, the crossing of which by Assad would trigger a U.S. response. More than the president's personal credibility is involved now in acting on it, in terms of resetting the path of an American foreign policy with which he has pointedly differed throughout his presidency.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)