Iraq is at a decisive impasse. An al-Qaida threat able to operate as a quasi-conventional military force has seized large portions of western Iraq, including parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, two major cities in Anbar province. While the main reason for the growth of al-Qaida in Iraq, a faction which is calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is the unbridled war in neighboring Syria, the Maliki government's spiteful actions toward Sunni Arabs have contributed.

In recent days, news reports of Sunni tribes in Anbar cooperating loosely with the Baghdad government against al-Qaida, and expedited U.S. military assistance and intelligence, gave reasons for hope. But then came Sunday's news conference by Secretary of State John Kerry. Although the secretary spoke about the dangers of al-Qaida gaining ground in Iraq and the countermeasures the United States was taking, he stated no fewer than four times that this fight was not ours but the Iraqis'. This, combined with an immediate denial of a suggestion that no one is even making — that the United States put troops on the ground — undercuts all the good commitments he made.

Surely the secretary's words were not very reassuring to the Sunni tribesmen the United States hopes will battle hardened al-Qaida forces, or even to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, our partner despite all his foibles. Iraq has hundreds of thousands of troops, lavishly armed by the United States, some well trained and experienced in combat. But they need not only the U.S. “multipliers” the secretary intimated are being sent — more drones, accurate air-to-ground missiles, intelligence and some remedial training in counterterrorism operations and coordination — but also moral support. How will Maliki, a Shiite, respond to U.S. admonitions that he take a different tack with Sunni Arab Iraqis if we take pains to emphasize that this is his fight, not ours?

In purely realpolitik terms, this is our fight. A destabilized Iraq with a western region overrun by al-Qaida is obviously not in U.S. interests if we want a calm Middle East and a secure homeland. Nor if we hope to see a functional Iraq export the 6 million barrels of oil the International Energy Agency estimates it could provide to world markets daily by 2020.

As is often the case in the Middle East, the Obama administration is taking the right actions. But, as also often happens in this region, the administration is sounding an uncertain tone, seemingly signaling to everyone that its top priority is to not get the United States into any sort of military engagement — that it wants to not just avoid a new Vietnam but even a new cruise missile raid, or small continuing military presence in Afghanistan, or the dispatch of a few dozen uniformed U.S. counterterrorism experts to advise Iraqis on how to take down al-Qaida in Fallujah. The result has been an extraordinary collapse of U.S. credibility in the region despite many commendable administration steps.

To be fair, the underlying problem — an obsessive focus on the domestic political and media aspects of any foreign policy move — is not unique to this administration. In this and in other recent instances — such as the ambivalence the president expressed in his September speech on Syria and the historic U.S. role in global security, and his expression of concern, in an interview last June, about a slippery slope should the United States take military action in Syria — the goal appears to be to inoculate the administration against criticism that it “didn't finish the job” against a particular enemy or that it is reversing its policy of “ending America's wars.” As was the case with previous administrations, what's missing from such a focus is empathy for the impact that U.S. words have on foreigners — our allies, partners and foes around the world. They are also an audience, and the first two keep “voting with their feet,” from turning down seats on the United Nations Security Council to their criticisms of U.S. policies in Tel Aviv news conferences. Until this focus changes, chaos will continue to threaten us in the Middle East and elsewhere.

James Jeffrey is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012.