Black flags over American tanks, Iraqi heads on public display and women threatened with death should they leave their homes – this is the new caliphate pseudo-state of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, perhaps short-lived, but, while breathing, the worst of all case scenarios for anyone invested in the Middle East.

If world powers knew in advance that a small, well-organized medieval Sunni militia was aiming to conquer major cities in Iraq, their leaders were evidently not prepared. And if Washington, London and Moscow did not know, then our intelligence capabilities are poorer than one would hope.

Indeed, as US President Barack Obama weighs military action against the group, administration officials suggest the US has so extracted itself from Iraq that Washington’s ability to strike targets with precision has been significantly diminished.

We know that ISIS’s current campaign, dubbed Operation Soldier’s Harvest, began in October 2013 with the explicit aim of cementing control of territory for the formation of a caliphate, erasing borders imposed by a colonial West and reimposing strict Shari’a law. With Ramadan approaching on June 28, we can expect ISIS will attempt a spectacular finish to this campaign phase.

At West Point, merely two weeks ago, Obama said global institutions were formed by the United States in order to enforce international norms – and to act as “force multipliers” for American interests. Certainly, the sovereignty of nations and the sanctity of borders – those between Iraq and Syria, or Ukraine and Russia, for example – constitute basic international norms that, by his own doctrine, must be enforced by international law for global order.

And yet the president is only considering a strike against ISIS, for the time being, to protect the Iraqi government – and therefore limited to its territory, officials said.

Once again bypassing Syria, where ISIS holds court in its “capital” al-Raqqa, the Obama administration is making clear its priorities in allowing a domino effect in the Middle East that it cannot control, with or without use of military force.

That is the lesson the Obama team learned from George W. Bush, when he first invaded Iraq as president in 2003 without acknowledging that the fall of Saddam Hussein, an iron fist for Sunni rule, would lead to sectarian strife across the country and a golden opportunity for Iran.

Indeed, Iran’s influence in the current Iraqi government, led by fellow Shi’ite Nouri al-Maliki, has emboldened its leaders and reinforced their ability to conduct terrorist activity worldwide, the very opposite objective of the Bush administration.

The former president has declined comment on recent developments in Iraq.

Yet this week, Obama’s former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the current president’s foreign policy was a “pendulum swing” from the days of Bush. If Clinton is right, we are witnessing the legacies of Bush in Iraq and Obama in Syria convulse into one chimera of a crisis.

That convulsion is a nightmare in the foreign policy community: Bush’s devastating choice to crush the state of Iraq has led both to the disintegration of order in that country, and to a timidity in the United States to do anything about the consequences.

Such a resignation to powerlessness, a fatalistic approach to foreign affairs, has led Syria to the calamitous reality it is today – a country full of cities decimated, the ashes from which al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has reemerged as ISIS.

Not even the most weathered experts can say how the Arab Spring would have unfolded in Iraq under Hussein.

Perhaps he would have fallen hard like Muammar Gadaffi did in Libya, fought diverse rebels as Bashar Assad has in Syria, or successfully crushed an uprising entirely.

But the current situation is clear: an Arab Winter for the region, borderless in its ruthlessness and facilitated by American action somewhere, inaction elsewhere. Now, Obama is forced to support an Iraqi government without any demonstrated interest in truly unifying its country, serving the policies of a neighbor that supports terrorist activity directed against Israel and the United States.

The world’s short-term interests may be aligned in preventing Baghdad from falling to ISIS. That fate, tactically, remains unlikely. But propping up al-Maliki’s government, and cooperation with Iran towards this objective, should be put in historical perspective. This is the true legacy of two presidents removed from the realities on the ground, from the realpolitik in Iraq and Syria, and the death taxes inherited.


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