The argument about what, if anything, the United States should do about developments — at once appalling and opaque — in Syria is just the latest flaring of a controversy that can be said to have been kindled in 1990 when Jeane Kirkpatrick urged the United States to resume its life as a “normal nation.” Although Kirkpatrick was a Democrat until 1985, she was in accord with Ronald Reagan, for whom she served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, regarding foreign policy. In an article written after the Berlin Wall fell and before Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States prepared to reverse this aggression, Kirkpatrick wrote: “With a return to ‘normal’ times, we can again become a normal nation. . . . It is time to give up the dubious benefits of superpower status.”

One of those benefits is that those who make U.S. foreign policy can scrub from their vocabularies the word “unacceptable,” which usually denotes something America actually must accept. Or even is already accepting, as when (March 11) Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, strangely said, “The United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state.”…

Remember Colin Powell’s U.N. speech detailing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, a speech the accusations in which Powell meticulously vetted during days he spent at CIA headquarters? Obama is muddled about his own red lines but he is rightly cautious about what it is possible to know about the Assad regime’s behavior.