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-Qaida 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-Qaida-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.