An al-Qaeda surge and Sunni-Shiite tumult spanning Iraq and Syria are testing eroded US influence and the logic of a US foreign policy built on antipathy to Middle East entanglements.
The return of jihadists to cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, fabled battlefields for US soldiers, has left US President Barack Obama facing charges he pulled troops home too soon from Iraq and squandered US sacrifices.
Meanwhile, US intelligence agencies worry that expanding havens for al-Qaeda extremists in splintered Syria could nurture jihadists destined for terror missions in the US and Europe.
Top US officials, led by US Vice President Joe Biden, have been burning telephone lines to Baghdad, urging Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reconcile with Sunni tribes in western Anbar Province before assaulting jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The frantic US effort mirrors the White House’s struggles to keep pace with revolution and disintegration from Egypt to Syria and Lebanon to Libya.
Washington wants Maliki to adopt a two-part strategy to check al-Qaeda advances. First: Reconcile with Sunni tribes. Then: Take military action.
In effect, that is the strategy US forces used during their Iraq surge, which, in conjunction with a Sunni awakening, helped drive al-Qaeda out.
However, some question whether fledgling Iraqi forces are capable of ousting militants from Fallujah, where Americans needed air support and some of their bloodiest fighting since Vietnam to prevail.
And in the two years since the final US troop carrier rolled out of Iraq, Washington has been frustrated that al-Maliki has not done more to cool the sectarian stew sent to boiling point by the US invasion in 2003.
Crises abroad are habitually viewed in myopic Washington as a US policy failure, even if local factors are more significant.
US sacrifices were “squandered by an administration that wanted out and didn’t want to remain and consolidate the gains that were made through the sacrifice of American blood and treasure,” US Senator John McCain said.
Obama’s critics blame him for failing to reach an agreement to keep a residual force in Iraq, which they say would have preserved US influence and prevented an al-Qaeda return.
Yet could a small US force really have stemmed the sectarian tide?
“We have lost that leverage right now,” Max Boot of the US Council on Foreign Relations said. “Those of us who were in favor of keeping troops after 2011 warned of what would happen. Unfortunately, I think our warnings have come to pass.”
The White House disputes the idea a small US garrison could have stemmed the sectarian tsunami.
“When there were 150,000 US troops on the ground, there was a great deal of sectarian violence in Iraq,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Obama, who built his career on opposing the war, faces little political risk on Iraq in a nation weary of combat.
Many analysts also believe that the most blame for Iraq’s torment lies with Maliki’s failure to bed down a multiethnic government and the overflow of extremism from Syria.
Yet an Iraq that descends into a full-scale civil war scenario would blot Obama’s legacy and undercut his claims he “ended the war.”