Barack Obama believed his legacy as president would be that he ended the Iraq war. It looks increasingly that his legacy could be that he lost it.
By their admission, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden inherited a war that had been won. In 2011 Mr. Obama said America was "leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq," and Mr. Biden proclaimed Iraq "one of the great achievements of this administration."
Mr. Obama then committed a massive error in judgment by withdrawing all U.S. troops. That allowed the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, the world's most formidable, merciless and dangerous terrorist army. ISIS is now establishing an Islamist caliphate that stretches from Aleppo in Syria to Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq and beyond.
The president was warned about the ISIS threat for months, yet did essentially nothing. As in so many other important moments when decisive action was required, his actions were haphazard and reactive, his leadership detached, his will almost nonexistent.
Even this past week, with ISIS threatening Kurdistan's capital and engaging in genocide against Yazidis and Christians, the best the president could do was order "targeted" airstrikes and send 130 additional troops to serve as "military advisers." While better than nothing, these actions do not demonstrate a commitment to defeating ISIS. Instead, Mr. Obama seems content to cede much of Iraq and Syria to the terrorists. That will have catastrophic consequences.
The Iraq calamity is the most recent in a staggering run of foreign-policy failures, from Syria to Libya to Afghanistan to Russia to Gaza. The president is paying a political price for his bumbling. The July 14 Pew Research poll found only 35% approve of Mr. Obama's handling of Iraq, while 54% disapprove, down from 46% approve and 41% disapprove in January 2011. Mr. Obama's numbers are likely worse today, one month further into the crisis.
Things are so bad that Mr. Obama is even drawing fire from his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. She is distancing herself from his foreign policy, telling the Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg that she favored aiding Syrian opposition groups when Mr. Obama did not. His refusal to provide aid, she said, left a vacuum that was filled by ISIS.
Mrs. Clinton also made it clear that she would be tougher on the Iranian nuclear program and a stronger supporter of Israel than Mr. Obama. Then she added a wicked jab. Playing off the president's earlier quip that his approach to foreign policy is "Don't do stupid s—", she said, "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."
Mrs. Clinton is calculating that she must separate herself from the president she served because voters increasingly see him as inept and weak. She argues that she is a foreign-policy Goldilocks, balanced between the frontier rambunctiousness of Mr. Obama's predecessor and the erudite timidity of Mr. Obama.
Moving away from Mr. Obama may look good on paper, but it may not work so well. For one thing, Mrs. Clinton cannot point to any notable successes during her State Department tenure. If she developed a strategy that was more than the laughable "reset" button she used to mend U.S. relations with Russia, it escaped public view. Distancing herself from the president's foreign policy also underscores her failure to persuade Mr. Obama to act otherwise.
Mrs. Clinton's shots at the president have angered administration loyalists. Former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod reacted by tweeting that her vote as a senator to authorize the use of force in Iraq was "a tragically bad decision." Liberal commentators are warning that Mrs. Clinton's comments show she is not the inevitable nominee. After being whipsawed, her people now say she called Mr. Obama to "clarify her criticism" and looked forward to "hugging it out" with him at a Martha's Vineyard party Wednesday.
There is a historical precedent worth considering. Vice President Hubert Humphrey found it difficult to distance himself in 1968 from an unpopular President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he suffered because of it. It was not until a Sept. 30 nationally televised address, when he broke completely with LBJ over the Vietnam War, that he felt he got his campaign back on track. But it was too little, too late, and Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon.
While she is starting her distancing earlier, in some respects Mrs. Clinton faces a greater challenge than Humphrey did in 1968. A gifted politician might be able to pull off what she is attempting, but she is hardly that talented. It's more likely that she will fail to win over many of Mr. Obama's critics as she alienates many of his supporters, making her road to the nomination and White House more difficult.
A version of this article appeared August 14, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Hillary's Risky Hawkish Makeover and online at WSJ.com.