The fire rages in Iraq

Watching the whirlwind of violence sweep across Iraq, most Americans would doubtless prefer to leave Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his countrymen to face their fate alone rather than have the United States bail them out.

That’s not merely a reflection of the public’s fatigue with Iraq, but rather the cumulative impact of waging a decade-long war alongside a government that repeatedly proved unwilling to make the sacrifices and compromises necessary to establish political stability and harmony. If Americans are in no mood to extend help to Iraq, they have ample reason:

• Al-Maliki and his Shia majority brought this on themselves by playing sectarian politics instead of being inclusive. That’s why Iraq’s Sunni soldiers fled the battlefield last week rather than fight.

• Al-Maliki’s government refused to make a deal allowing a residual U.S. force to remain in Iraq in exchange for a grant of sovereign immunity, a minimal demand from President Obama. Any administration would have required the same.

• Even with all that, the Pentagon has continued to provide help in the form of a $14-billion aid package that includes F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters.

All good reasons to stay out of it — if only we could.

The renewed conflict in Iraq is part of the larger war for control of the Middle East. So is the war in Syria, the catalyst that has drawn militant fighters into the area and sparked the wider conflagration. On Tuesday, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that the conflict in Syria “has reached a tipping point threatening the entire region.” A victory for militants in Iraq would shift the balance of the region in their favor, as well as create a safe haven for terrorists eager to wreak havoc in Europe and the United States.

The Obama administration has no choice but to deny power to the Islamic militants because they are a direct threat to our own country, even if it means propping up al-Maliki’s undeserving government. But it cannot do so unless the president gives his full attention to the problem and makes the case for commitment, short of sending combat troops to the region. Tuesday, he ordered 275 troops to Iraq to provide security.

Greater U.S. involvement in Syria, an idea President Obama has resisted for too long, must be part of the effort. Earlier help for the moderate opposition might have made a big difference in the war to topple Bashar al Assad. There can be no solution for the region without draining this swamp.

Providing direct military help in Iraq is a requisite part of any effort, like it or not, but it must be properly planned and executed. Airstrikes could stop the extremist advance, but only with careful direction. They could do more harm than good if U.S. forces have no intelligence to guide the munitions to the proper targets. Indeed, many civilians have fled Iraqi cities more out of fear of bombardment by the Iraqi government than out of fear of the invaders.

Perhaps most important, the Obama administration must take an active leadership role to unite anti-extremist forces in the region. The Saudis, Jordanians, Turks and others are willing to help, but only the United States can convene all the parties and create a coherent strategy to defeat the militants.

That will not entail a short-term investment of time and effort. Solutions in the Middle East are neither painless nor cheap. Americans know that by now. But they also know that turning a blind eye to danger spots, as we once did in Afghanistan, invites disaster.