For more than a year, Mideast analysts have warned about an al-Qaida offshoot that was creating a virtual state in eastern Syria and western Iraq, where it trained European and American recruits. The Obama team failed to focus on this virulent threat to U.S. interests, either in Syria or Iraq.
Now those jihadis - known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - have jolted the region by pouring out of Syria, seizing Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and heading toward Baghdad "This is al-Qaida 6.0," says Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad and Kabul, "and they will be stronger than they ever were in Afghanistan." The White House is belatedly trying to devise a policy to stop ISIS's advance. The first step should be for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to put Iraq back on their mental map.
"Since we pulled our troops out of Iraq, we have also pulled out our diplomacy," Crocker told me in a phone interview.
Vice President Biden, the administration point man on Iraq, hasn't visited Baghdad since November 2011. (He called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this week - from Brazil, where he was attending the first U.S. World Cup game.) Kerry has visited only once since he took office. As for Obama, he lists the complete pullout from Iraq as one of his stellar foreign policy achievements and has had little or no interest in personally engaging its leaders.
This lack of high-level focus left the White House blindsided when ISIS invaded Mosul. The administration's aversion to Iraq meant that no one was using Washington's remaining leverage to press Maliki to form a more inclusive government, as he had promised Biden in 2011. The Iraqi leader's Shiite sectarianism created the widespread Sunni hostility that enabled ISIS to roll through Iraq's north with the help of disaffected Sunni tribes.
The administration's Iraq aversion had already meant it didn't try hard enough to find a formula for a follow-on presence of military advisers after 2011, which would have provided more leverage on Maliki.
U.S. officials apparently assumed the U.S.-trained and armed Iraqi forces could handle any remaining threat from al-Qaida. They failed to pay sufficient attention to the growing violence perpetrated by ISIS inside Iraq over the past year - or to the fact that the attacks were being mounted out of ISIS safe havens inside Syria.
The ISIS violence was so threatening that Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari asked last fall for U.S. drone strikes on ISIS militants - which weren't forthcoming. Nor did the administration give much help to moderate Syrian rebels who were trying to fight ISIS on the Syrian side of the border.
Now, finally, Obama has awoken to the ISIS threat. No matter his aversion to Iraq, no matter the sins of the Bush administration that created the Iraq mess, the president can no longer afford the president's hands-off posture toward Baghdad.
Obama has rightly said he won't send combat troops. Nor will he consider military action, such as air or drone strikes against ISIS, unless "Iraq's leaders set aside sectarian differences." Yet Maliki shows no sign that he gets the message or is ready for genuine outreach to Sunnis. And at this point, it will be harder than ever to convince reasonable Sunnis they can trust him. So the chances of an internal Iraqi political deal that could undercut ISIS's gains are minimal at best, but they are zero unless Obama gets directly engaged.
However, arguments are already circulating in Washington as to why such engagement isn't needed. One prominent claim is that the ISIS move has effectively partitioned Iraq into three parts, among Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites, and the United States should accept that. Apart from the horrible human costs, that argument ignores the strategic risks that partition poses.
Even if ISIS halts at Baghdad's gates - as many believe it will - the threat it poses will not stop there. ISIS now controls a territory as large as a country, and it has seized massive amounts of U.S. heavy weapons from Iraqi bases, along with hundreds of millions of dollars from Mosul banks. "This is an army, not a militia," Crocker says. "ISIS can build a caliphate and plan how to attack us" or threaten neighboring Arab countries.
Partition would also leave Tehran in virtual control of an Iraqi Shiite rump state in the south along with Iraq's main oil holdings. Any claim that Iran would cooperate with Washington in fighting ISIS ignores this fact: Tehran's Iraqi file is under the control of Gen. Qasem Souleimani, head of the al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards, who has shown little interest in pressing Maliki to be more inclusive.
"Souleimani is in Baghdad now," says Crocker. "Kerry should be there. We've got to politically reengage at the top levels." Or else watch Iraq devolve into an Iranian protectorate and a jihadi emirate.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.