06/12/2014 06:12 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2014

ISIS Beats a Brutal Counterpoint to Hillary's Happy Book Launch

Everyone expected this to be a very high-profile week for a political actor best known by a feminine first name. What few expected was that it would be the moniker of an extreme Islamic jihadist outfit sweeping through "liberated" Iraq as it carves out a new de facto state from the shards of the northern reaches of Iraq and Syria, with U.S.-trained Iraqi troops running away as it advances.

The prospective presidential candidate that three-term verging on four-term California Governor Jerry Brown, a two-time Democratic presidential runner-up, implies is beyond challenge -- unless, that is, it turns out she is not -- which is to say, Hillary Clinton, is in the midst of a week happily rolling out her new book. Hard Choices is her memoir of her time in the biggest job she has held to date, U.S. secretary of state. Having looked it over, it occurs to me that the title must be ironic, for it's a book not about hard choices at all, but rather having it all. And it is just as inward-looking and revelatory as the standard memoir, which is to say hardly at all.

Taking advantage of the weakness of the Iraqi regime and the chaos of the Syrian civil war, ISIS is out to create a caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria and beyond.

But discussion of the book and its role in her emerging proto-campaign for the presidency in 2016 is being overshadowed by the latest chapter in the saga of the Hillary-backed Iraq War.

For ISIS, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a virulent Al Qaeda outfit-turned-off-shoot disowned as too extreme and brutal even by Osama bin Laden's bloody successor in jihad, Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri, has taken center stage. Not to be a stickler for context or anything, but these are jihadists with whom, like it or not, we would have been aligned had we intervened in the Syrian civil war, as advocated by Hillary and her sometime Republican drinking buddy, John McCain.

ISIS, which has as its stated mission the final destruction of the Middle Eastern map created by the secret British-French accord to carve up the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, is building a brutal Islamist state from the shards of the northern reaches of Iraq and Syria. Now it has seized Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, in a stunning setback for Iraq's rather pro-Iranian central government, which not long ago was heavily backed by the U.S., and is getting closer to Baghdad itself. Let's see now, which of these factions are we for, now? Can we buy a vowel? Or a clue?

ISIS had previously captured Fallujah, which cost U.S. Marines a great deal of blood during the Iraq War, and Ramadi as well as Deir Zour and Raqqa in Syria.

Major portions of Lebanon and Jordan also appear at risk from ISIS.

Even before the U.S. pullout from Iraq, it was clear that there was very bad blood between Sunni and Shiite in an Iraq governed by pro-Shia, pro-Tehran Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Maliki regime, installed and backed to the hilt by the Bush/Cheney Administration after it toppled longtime dictator Saddam Hussein, inherited by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, pursued a policy of prosecuting leading Sunni politicians. When a Sunni political party finished first in the national elections, it was denied even the opportunity to attempt to form a government, normally the right of any first place finishing party in a parliamentary system.

With Sunnis feeling persecuted by the Shia majority, the string of lethal bombings that I long ago lost count of should not have surprised.

To her credit, Hillary apologizes in her memoir for voting as a member of the U.S. Senate to authorize the invasion of Iraq. Well, some mistakes, like gifts, just keep on giving. And Hillary was a rather ardent backer of the war until, getting ready to run in the Democratic presidential primaries, she opposed the surge effort that actually helped cobble together a short-lived sense of success for America in Iraq. No destruction of the Saddam regime and Iraqi state, which, to remind, had nothing to do with 9/11 and no weapons of mass destruction, no rise of Iran as regional power, no proving ground for jihadists, no distraction from the military, intelligence, and ideological campaign against Al Qaeda, no creation of the present vacuum, and so on.

Perhaps overcompensating for her background as not just a woman who has never worn the uniform but also an Ivy League anti-Vietnam War activist who got her start in politics working for George McGovern's peacenik presidential campaign and the Democratic effort to impeach Richard Nixon, Hillary has since more often than not chosen the hawkish stance in geopolitics. Sometimes force is necessary. Though not as a reflex.

But let's get back to all that another time.

The stunning developments of this week show that events have clearly out-stripped whatever strategy the Obama Administration has had with regard to ISIS. And the reality is that we don't have very good options in Iraq.

Had Maliki not opposed a residual U.S. force after the withdrawal of American combat troops, the situation in Iraq might not be as dire it seems. ISIS is succeeding in part because Iraq's army is collapsing.

Now, the U.S. destroyed a very functional Iraqi state -- its military, bureaucracy, police, and much of its infrastructure -- a decade ago. Then we tried to rebuild it. It obviously hasn't worked. The performance of Iraqi forces -- evidently very lacking in purpose, pride, and discipline -- is appalling.

But I've seen first-hand in the Philippines, where persistent Islamic jihadist and Communist guerrilla movements have been contained, how the presence of U.S. military advisors and assistance can help the home country's military operate more effectively than it might have in their absence. If there were a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq, it is just possible that things might be going differently.

As the sensational gains of ISIS, which challenge all post-9/11 U.S. decision-making in the Middle East, were about to become evident, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "clarified" her much remarked upon remark early this week that she and President Clinton were "dead broke" after leaving the White House. It's just the sort of essentially minor kerfuffle that she reportedly hates, but it is also the sort of trivial pursuit that may shield her from deeper questions.

However, that U.S. presence does not exist. Could more effective work by America's top diplomat, who was then, er, Hillary Clinton, have made the difference? Or was Maliki, who, to be clear again, was inherited by Obama, Biden, and Clinton from the Bush/Cheney Administration, too fundamentally intransigent, too eager to please Iran by shutting out America?

Now Maliki wants the U.S. to weigh in with air strikes against ISIS. Iraq used to have a pretty effective air force until it was destroyed, well, you know where this is going. Now it has just enough air assets to fly recon and surveillance and supply missions. Maybe Maliki's friends in Iran can help. They have an air force. (Though not one that holds a candle to U.S. capabilities in all aspects of aerial and air-to-ground warfare.)

It's obvious that is very little appetite in America now for taking on the ISIS challenge. More than a decade of grinding, mostly non sequitur post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have done that. (Non sequitur wars because, after the initial take-down of the Al Qaeda support structure in Afghanistan, the wars have had little to do with dealing with the folks who actually attacked us, not to mention the circumstances that gave rise to them.)

Of course, had Obama not pursued the big surge in Afghanistan backing the government of another wrong number inherited from the Bush/Cheney Administration, "our man in Kabul" Hamid Karzai, there would probably be more of an appetite for this latest challenge. But the big exhausting Afghan War surge, championed by Hillary, did take place and there is little appetite for action in Iraq.

Yet ISIS is on the move, certainly to ill effect for the region, perhaps to the US.

Now there are reports that Iranian troops will intervene in Iraq to help the Maliki regime. Could an international effort, including U.S. air power but not ground troops, be pulled together to defeat ISIS?

Or would what could easily be depicted as a de facto alliance between Shiite ground forces and "Crusader" air forces provide just the sort of religious and ideological material to further fuel the ISIS movement?

If it's not a counter-productive action, I see a strong case for U.S. air strikes against the ISIS forces.

But can we trust our government to come up with the right answers on these questions?

I'd ask if Hillary Clinton ever imagined that this would be happening the week she rolled out her memoir as America's top diplomat, but we all know the answer to that.

William Bradley Archive