Headlines reporting renewed military successes in Iraq by al-Qaida militants are an unpleasant reminder of just how difficult it is for outsiders to impose law and order on the warring factions of the Middle East.
The latest fighting in Fallujah, which was the scene of some of the bloodiest U.S. battles in Iraq, is also a timely warning against any substantial U.S. intervention in the brutal civil war in neighboring Syria or the maintenance of too large a residual force in Afghanistan.
A decade after President George W. Bush issued optimistic forecasts that a new democratic Iraq would emerge following Saddam Hussein's overthrow, the area's traditional rivalries are unsurprisingly exerting far more influence than the lengthy, costly U.S. military effort did.
Republican hawks like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina blame President Barack Obama's administration for the current situation in Fallujah and Ramadi, citing its inability to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government to maintain more U.S. troops than the 200 currently guarding the U.S. Embassy.
They dispute the administration's contention that Iraq's desire to end U.S. military involvement was behind the refusal to reach an agreement that would have governed the terms under which some forces would have remained.
But McCain and Graham are right about one thing: Obama did want to withdraw the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan. He campaigned on that promise and has, for the most part, carried it out.
"This is the fight that belongs to the Iraqis," Secretary of State John Kerry said, making clear the United States has no plans to return ground troops to Iraq.
Unfortunately, the Iraqis and, in particular, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-controlled government have made a bad situation worse by concerning themselves more with minimizing the Sunni minority's role rather than bringing them into a unified government that might have provided stability.
Recent successes by al-Qaida's Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have also raised concern over the trans-national group's impact across the border where it has emerged as one of the major factions trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The increasing connection between the two wars, along with the fighting across the Syria-Lebanon border, is hardly surprising, given the artificial nature of the region's national boundaries. The lines were largely created by the British and other Western powers, rather than stemming from the development of homogeneous national groups.
One aspect of the administration's stance seems at odds with its firm opposition to any renewed military involvement in Iraq or Syria: Its continued support for maintaining roughly 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, primarily to train Afghan forces to protect themselves against the Taliban.
That's a far cry from the original goal of the war there, which was to halt the country's use as a launching pad for al-Qaida's attacks against the West.
Unsurprisingly, that plan does not generate much support within the United States. A CNN/ORC International poll last month showed only one-quarter of respondents favored keeping any troops in Afghanistan after December 2014 and half favored withdrawing them before that.
The issue may become mute if the government of President Hamid Karzai maintains its refusal to retain any residual U.S. force after this December.
Given domestic attitudes, the McCain-Graham criticism is likely to have minimal impact. Indeed, there seems more chance the administration could face political pressure from the left wing of the Democratic Party if Karzai accepts the U.S. plan and American troops remain.
"We should get on helicopters tomorrow and get the hell out of there," former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who is considering a 2016 presidential bid, said on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Last month in Iowa, the Montana Democrat indicated that -- like Obama in 2008 -- he would raise potential rival Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq, telling a group, "I'm asking you to pick the leaders who aren't going to make those mistakes."
Whether that will enable Schweitzer to get traction is questionable. But he clearly understands that, despite the likelihood of physical and human carnage continuing in the Middle East for some time, Americans accept the idea that the United States is best off seeking a diplomatic rather than a military settlement there.
(Carl Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.)