SUNBURY — WASHINGTON — In mid-January, a taciturn, chain-smoking Iraqi politician came to Washington to meet with powerful members of Congress, White House advisers and think-tankers and convey an urgent warning. Iraq is about to explode, he said, and the United States needs to pay attention.
He described a country poisoned by sectarianism, beset by a virulent Islamist insurgency and hampered by a divisive prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim who had marginalized the Sunni sect, creating dangerous resentments.
But the visitor, Saleh al-Mutlak, Iraq's deputy prime minister and a rare Sunni officeholder, soon realized that in official Washington, Iraq was old news, settled business. Mutlak says his takeaway after a week of discussion with U.S. foreign-policy makers was, "Good luck, you're on your own."
Well surprise, surprise.
Iraq indeed did blow up this month, as a Sunni extremist group few Americans had heard of — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — overran the feckless Iraqi army, took control of key cities and claimed large portions of northern and western Iraq. Suddenly ISIS, the evil spawn of bloody conflicts in two besieged Arab states, became a crucial talking point even among people who didn't know what they were talking about.
It was a rerun of a familiar Washington ritual as the political players lined up to posture. Who's to blame? Why didn't anybody see this coming?
You could ask the same question about the Russian takeover of Crimea, the Arab Spring, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
Or the economic conflagration of 2007. Or the surprise defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Huh? How did this happen? Who knew?
In several of the above cases, many people did know. And leaders didn't listen. The United States, for example, continued its embrace of Maliki, though the Obama administration is now reportedly looking for an alternative.