WASHINGTON - The can of worms that George W. Bush cracked open in Iraq in 2003, which Barack Obama tried to close and essentially gave up on by the end of 2011, is now spilling over into a major Middle East catastrophe.
A Sunni insurgency has rocked the corrupt regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Bush fostered and Obama reluctantly sustained. What arguably has been the worst American foreign-policy decision of our time - the invasion of Iraq - has become the classic example of the law of unintended consequences.
The chief political victims here at home, in terms of their legacies, are likely to be both Bush and Obama; Bush for launching an unnecessary war of choice on false intelligence, and Obama, who called it "a dumb war" but spent much of his presidency striving to clean up the mess and get out.
Bush's reputation, soaring after his melodramatic assumption of the role of wartime president in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, eventually plunged as he pivoted from the unfinished war in Afghanistan to Iraq. In the process, he left a political quagmire in both places.
Obama inherited the mess along with the Oval Office in his election in 2008, in which he promised to end both wars. Instead, He found them impeding most of his own planned domestic agenda, also awash in an economic slide only now receding.
Justifiable pressure to end the wars greeted him from an American public weary of a decade of foreign strife, especially in Iraq, where the U.S. interest was unclear if not non-existent. So Obama hastened to remove American combat forces there, eventually relying on a makeshift U.S.-trained Iraqi army to keep the hapless Maliki regime on its feet.
When Maliki refused to sign an agreement that would guarantee the security of the U.S. trainers left behind, the Obama administration concluded it had no recourse but to leave. Meanwhile, Maliki declined to bring other political elements into his regime, reviving the opposition and spawning the current morass.
The new Iraqi army, assembled after Saddam Hussein's own oppressive force melted away, has proved to be a paper tiger, crumbling in the face of the current Sunni-led insurgency, as Maliki pleads again for American help.
The shocking disintegration of the military situation in Iraq has come at a particularly embarrassing and politically damaging time for Obama. His recent West Point speech was taken as confirmation of an Obama Doctrine of intentionally moving away from what he has called "a perpetual war footing" to a more selective employment of American military force.
While many fellow Democrats applauded the notion, critics jumped on the speech as evidence of Obama's weakness and retreat on the foreign-policy front. But Vice President Joe Biden has long counseled returning to the focus after 9/11 of going after agents of terrorism, as opposed to the nation-building under Bush and continued to a lesser degree by in Obama.
Biden was widely ridiculed for proposing in 2006 in the New York Times that Bush seek the division of Iraq along ethno-religious lines. He and Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations called for creating autonomous provinces for Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south.
They wrote then that "Bush does not have a strategy for victory in Iraq. Rather, he proposes to prevent defeat and pass the problem along to his successor." Whether or not that was Bush's intent, that was what happened.
It may well be too late to negotiate such an outcome, but hope for any soft landing looks bleak right now. Obama seems trapped between his ambitions to bring America home and having to ponder how he can avoid a sordid end to the huge foreign-policy misadventure of another president's making.
His re-election in 2012 was supposed to give him a chance for a fresh start on his own agenda, long delayed by the wars and Republican obstructionism in Congress. Instead, he faces more than two more years of digging out of the ditch he forlornly keeps complaining his processor has left him in.