MIDWAY THROUGH his second term, President George W. Bush found himself facing a foreign-policy disaster largely of his own making. He had ordered an invasion of Iraq without a sufficiently large force to occupy the country and without a well-considered plan for its reconstruction. Under his direction, the Iraqi military and government were dismantled with nothing to take their place, and by 2006 the nation was on the verge of a full-blown sectarian war.
Without explicitly acknowledging his miscalculations, Mr. Bush changed course. He replaced his defense secretary and his field commanders. He ignored the advice of a bipartisan commission to essentially accept defeat, deciding that U.S. national security would be harmed by Iraq’s fracturing. He ordered a surge of troops and a new strategy that helped restore stability.
At the same midpoint of his second term, President Obama faces a similar challenge, and at a news conference Thursday he offered some indications of a similar willingness to rethink. Mr. Obama had gambled that the United States could withdraw from Iraq and (by 2016) Afghanistan while staying aloof from the civil war in Syria. The result has been growing turmoil that he can no longer ignore: humanitarian catastrophes in both Syria and Iraq; widening territory under the control of a vicious al-Qaeda offshoot with a goal of sending attackers into the United States; and, once again, a potential bloody disintegration of Iraq.
The immediate challenge this poses for the United States is confounding. Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has put sectarian interests above national goals, so to join him in beating back the terrorist challenge might only widen the country’s divide. But even if Mr. Maliki continues to ignore American advice to be more inclusive, an al-Qaeda-style “caliphate” stretching from Syria into Iraq would be too dangerous for the United States and its allies. Mr. Obama is trying to square that circle, and the measures he outlined Thursday represent a judicious start.
First, and in some ways most important, Mr. Obama committed the United States to meeting the challenge. “It is in our national interests not to see an all-out civil war inside of Iraq,” he said. “We also have an interest in making sure that we don’t have a safe haven that continues to grow for . . . extremist jihadist groups.” His logic applies to Syria as well as Iraq, and it tells everyone in the region that the United States will not be a bystander.
Second, he ordered military and diplomatic moves to back up his words: increased intelligence operations, more aid to Iraq’s military, joint operations centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq and the deployment of as many as 300 military advisers. These are appropriately modest steps as the United States assesses the situation and pushes for political responses in Iraq and the region. The latter will be essential, which is why Mr. Obama’s dispatch of Secretary of State John F. Kerry to the region this weekend is critical. At the same time, Mr. Obama made clear that the United States would act more forcefully if warranted as he beefs up the U.S. military presence: “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it,” he said.
Mr. Obama has to take care that his judiciousness isn’t overtaken by events, which have repeatedly caught U.S. officials by surprise, and he has to explain to the American people that there will be no safe outcome without U.S. engagement sustained over years, not months. But a strong declaration of American interests is a crucial beginning. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama may be facing a second term very different from the one he had hoped for. History will credit him if he adjusts and responds to dangers he had hoped were in his rearview mirror.