- - Friday, June 13, 2014

Most Americans aren’t much interested in “foreign affairs” until events demand it. Americans pay the president to worry about troubles in faraway places and usually feel entitled to nap until they get a wake-up call. But this is an option not available to presidents.

Barack Obama doesn’t hear about a crisis, whether in Benghazi or Syria or Ukraine or at the IRS, until he reads about it in the newspapers. He says so himself. The opportunity for democratic government in Iraq, purchased with the blood and bone of thousands of splendid young Americans, is crumbling, and once more the president is surprised.

The disaster in Iraq is stunning. First, Fallujah fell, then Mosul, and then the assault on the capital itself by a ragtag army arriving in pickup trucks. Iran volunteers to save the day (and we can only hope that the president doesn’t see Iran as the solution). Mr. Obama will try to spin “the Big Crumble” as the fault of George W. Bush, and Mr. Bush deserves blame for his naive belief that democracy and decency, surrounded by so much inhumanity and barbarism in the name of Allah, could survive in such surroundings. But the Big Crumble is on Mr. Obama’s watch, abetted by his eagerness to pull American arms out of Iraq too soon, just to take credit for something he could call success.

He hailed the departure of the last American troops in 2011 as victory accomplished by his hand. “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, the training and the partnering — all of this has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

Reality mocks the pretty words over the disaster that will be his legacy. Mr. Obama is addicted to pretty words from his own mouth, and there were other voices of vainglory. Joe Biden, the vice president ever eager to say foolish things, predicted four years ago that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.”

It’s tempting to be cynical — some call it “realistic” — about the futility of pulling the Islamic world toward the 21st century. Most would settle for getting it to the 12th. The stories of atrocities by the soldiers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, are horrific indeed, of beheadings and crucifixions of those who stand in the way of establishing the ultimate Shariah state. This could have been prevented if Mr. Obama had been paying attention, to put the best face on it, or if he had not been so eager to withdraw for political reasons.

To accomplish something in Iraq now, even if the president’s heart were in trying, — a very big “if” — will be difficult. It’s difficult to imagine that the United States still has leverage to apply in Iraq after six years of wishing away the credibility of America’s will.

But an exceptional nation must figure out what can be done and find a way to do it. Leading this is expecting a lot from a president who revels in his disengagement with the responsibilities he asked for. But when a fire bell rings in the night, someone must answer, and that someone must not be a firebug from Iran.