Three years after the United States withdrew from Iraq, much of the country has been overrun by militants who are a combination of Sunnis, al-Qaida in Iraq remnants and other dissidents. The United States, which freed Iraq from Saddam Hussein in the second Gulf War but had no coherent plan for what to do next, broke the country and must do what it can to help stabilize it, but there are limits to what Washington can do. That will apply at some point to Afghanistan as well.
More than 8,000 Iraqis were killed in 2013 as violence escalated in the nation, so the militant assault cannot be regarded as a surprise. The speed and success of the uprising are surprising, however, but only because no one could have guessed how quickly the Iraqi military would pack it in. While soldiers were donning civilian clothes and blending in to the crowd, militants were collecting U.S.-supplied guns and supplies, even helicopters.
Washington spent $25 billion rebuilding Iraq's military and security forces, so their collapse falls squarely on the Iraqis themselves. The Bush administration unwisely dismantled the Iraqi army after Hussein's overthrow, which not only led to chaos in the country but apparently broke the military beyond repair. The vacuum created led to the arrival in Iraq of al-Qaida.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rewarded American military and monetary backing by setting up a Shiite dictatorship to get payback against the Sunnis instead of trying to unify the country. Critics of President Obama assert he should have left a residual American force behind in 2011, but Mr. al-Maliki wouldn't allow it. What is happening now in his country is on the Iraqi prime minister.
Mr. al-Maliki set the stage for the ongoing disaster, just as his counterpart in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has responded to U.S. support by refusing to cooperate with the Obama administration as it prepares to leave the country. What happens next is on Mr. Karzai.
Iraq is said to be seeking assistance from its old foe Iran, which doesn't want an Islamic state to emerge on its border. Like Iran, the U.S. has a keen interest in what happens, as do Russia, Turkey and other neighboring countries. They can assist, but only Iraq can save Iraq. That was true when Mr. Hussein was in power and it has been true ever since.