Cliff May

The largest and most expensive embassy in the world is in Baghdad. President George W. Bush built it in the hope, perhaps the expectation, that before long, it would house envoys to the first democratic American ally in the Arab world. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. With terrorists on the march throughout an expanding swath of Iraq, the State Department last weekend began to evacuate “substantial” numbers of diplomats. Meanwhile, dozens of Marines are being sent in.

Many blame Mr. Bush for this failure: In the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they say, he should have kept his eye on the ball — the ball being al Qaeda, and perhaps the terrorist-sponsoring regime in Iran. Instead, he toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Others argue that after the “surge” — which dealt devastating defeats to both al Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-backed Shia militias — Mr. Bush left behind a relatively stable and increasingly democratic land. Further progress required that President Obama maintain at least a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq — just as American presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, have maintained a military presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany long after wars in those countries ended.

This debate will continue, not without acrimony, for years to come. More urgent right now: identifying, preferably on a bipartisan basis, policies that stand the best chance of mitigating a growing, evolving threat.

It’s useful to name that threat, and it was encouraging that Mr. Obama did so last week: “We do have a stake in making sure these jihadists do not gain a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria,” he said.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.