The startling speed with which Iraq has become unhinged has sent shockwaves through the region, and Washington has struggled to influence the outcome in a country where it fought a bloody and costly war that Americans hoped had ended more than two years ago.
Ruthlessly violent Sunni extremists have swept south to threaten Baghdad. The US-trained and -equipped Iraqi security forces dissolved as Sunni insurgents advanced, raiding government arsenals and banks, seizing oil facilities, releasing prisoners and aiming to settle a score with the countryís Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Although coalition forces led by America handed a relatively stable Iraq to Maliki, he has worked tirelessly to use his power against the countryís Sunni minority, inflaming sectarian tensions.
Iran is helping Maliki, hoping to save him as it saved Syriaís President Bashar al-Assad from defeat against similar rebels. Maliki has appealed to Washington for help.
But President Obama has been reluctant. He blames Malikiís blatantly sectarian leadership for contributing to the current crisis and argues that itís up to Iraqis to settle this fight. He has rejected sending US combat forces to Iraq, but approved as many as 300 special operators to advise Iraqi forces, collect intelligence and ó perhaps ó coordinate airstrikes. Obama wants Iraq to form a unity government that would allow the country to remain in one piece.
Obamaís critics, however, blame him for leaving Iraq prematurely, failing to arm moderate Syrian rebels and not moving more forcefully to stop this recent insurgent onslaught.
Sadly, this crisis was caused by many hands, starting with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and numerous bad decisions, like disbanding the Iraqi Army and removing Sunni loyalists from the government and military, which served only to create an angry group with the training and the weapons to become a problem. And they did.
Obama should have tried harder to keep a residual force in Iraq, which could have helped shape Maliki, but itís clear the Shiite leader wanted the US out of the way to prosecute his own campaign against Sunni opponents and that a small number of US troops would not have been of great effect.
Then there was the war in Syria. Experts say Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE sent arms to Turkey, which transferred them to radical forces in Syria with the aim of overthrowing the Assad regime after Washington and its allies declined to arm more moderate rebels. Now those same rebels are on the move in Iraq.
In a stunning twist, top US and Iranian diplomats have discussed cooperating to shore up the Maliki government. Thatís an ironic development that could be good news for relations between the two longtime adversaries, but may not be enough to save Iraq and keep the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from creating an extremist caliphate as a base for future attacks on America and its allies in the region and elsewhere.
It is a mess with global implications.
First, the international community must move to halt ISILís progress. Here, persistent airborne surveillance and precision air power are critical tools.
Second, the administration must craft a cogent regional strategy to contain the group and stabilize the region amid a widening Islamic civil war that could span decades.
Finally, it must recognize that foreign interventions are never easy, nor do they end quickly. Iraqís plight is another cautionary tale for America as it prepares to leave Afghanistan.
Despite trillions of dollars spent and thousands of American lives lost in both countries, ultimate success rests both on local decisions and long-term US and international engagement.