West left to look at a world spiralling out of control as new forces take hold
Events in northern Iraq are a fearsome demonstration of what has become ever clearer over the past three years: America is losing control of the Middle East.
A region seen, since the discovery of oil, as the central pivot of Western international policy is victim to raging wars that Washington and its allies are powerless to stop. It may be of little consolation to President Barack Obama and certainly no mitigation for his critics, but everyone else is losing control too.
Mr Obama used a speech in Cairo five years ago this month to announce an American change of heart towards the region. He envisaged his listeners forging their own path, and that is essentially what has happened. It is just a messier and more sectarian process than he foresaw.
The governments of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, and more nefarious agents somehow working with them, have relentlessly promoted their proxies, heedless of calls for restraint. Those proxies are killing without mercy.
Al-Qa'ida, which for so long we thought was the West's gravest foe, has been outflanked. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has taken on the hostility to the Western world of its parent and added into the mix the capture of territory and a toolbox of terror from beyond the known extremes: kidnappings, beheadings, crucifixions. Whoever "wins" the war in Syria, whatever that now means, will be ruling a country over the east of which it is hard to see any Damascus-based government regaining authority.
As for Iraq, to say that its rulers have proved inadequate to the task of maintaining sovereignty and unity since the British and Americans began pulling out troops would be a euphemism. Western diplomats lavished praise on them for two successful elections even as they lost a third of the country to jihadists. Another slice, run by the resilient and better-organised Kurdish autonomists, has effectively declared independence.
Eight long years ago President George W Bush hoped his "surge" would see off the jihadi threat to his administration's signature project, the democratisation of Iraq. Now a jihadi surge, aimed at replacing democracy with a caliphate, has knocked the plan sideways.
In the immediate future, this may all seem to make little difference to the West. We have been told the main threat to our way of life is "the returning fighters", those idealistic young British Sunni Muslims who have headed off to join in the fight for their faith, and become radicalised and trained. They insist they do not need to return home: they now have a Dawla Islamiya, an Islamic State, to call their own. It is "beautiful, you should see it", declared one Briton the other day on Twitter to anyone who was listening.
That was about the same time a colleague was posting a picture of the bloodied corpse of a recipient of ISIS justice being suspended from a signpost in the Syrian town of Raqqa.
The response from London and Washington has been muted. The White House said there would be no immediate statement to the latest ISIS advance. The British Foreign Office offered its full support to the Iraqi authorities; at the same time David Cameron said military support was "just not on the table".
That coincidence of statements neatly summarised the state of Western policy: we will do absolutely everything to achieve what we want in the Middle East, except what it takes. Some will ask is this really how a century of Western policy is to end? Is this the purpose for which so many thousands of British, American and other lives have been lost? (© Daily Telegraph, London)