INDIANAPOLIS - There was a simple, but troubling question for U.S. Sen. Dan Coats. “Could Baghdad fall to ISIS?”
 
The Indiana Republican who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee didn’t hesitate long before an even more troubling response. “I think it could,” Coats said. “They’re on the outskirts. And if that happens, it’s over.”
 
The premise of the question was backed up by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, a top military adviser to President Obama, who said on ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday, “I have no doubt there will be days when they use indirect fire into Baghdad,” Dempsey said. “The government of Iraq, which is moving but has not yet achieved a narrative that would cause the 20 million Sunnis who live between Damascus and Baghdad to believe that their future is with the government of Iraq, in the case of Iraqis, and certainly the Syrian regime is not reaching out to the Sunni population in Syria.”
 
A few days later, Dempsey told CNN, “I don't see that happening. I’m confident we can assist the Iraqis to keep Baghdad from falling."
 
"It's not plausible at this point to envision ISIL taking control of Baghdad, but they can make Baghdad so miserable that it would threaten the legitimacy of the central government," Richard Brennan, an Iraq expert with RAND Corporation, told the Associated Press. Al Aradiya News reported earlier this week that “dozens” of ISIS suicide bombers have infiltrated the city and Fox News reported the insurgents armed with man-pads are eight miles from the airport. The Pentagon reported that nearby Anbar Province, where hundreds of American soliders lost life and limb less than a decade ago, is “in flux.”
 
File this under the category of bad decisions of the past compounding into a potential geopolitical catastrophe. The Islamic State has already declared itself a caliphate. It sacked banks in Mosul and now has billions of dollars to fund its cause. As the Iraqi Army - the force we spent a decade and billions of dollars training - dropped their arms, abandoned U.S. built Humvees and stripped off their uniforms, the ISIS soldiers took control of the hardware. It is beheading Westerners almost as a dare for the civilized world to come and take it on.
 
Coats acknowledged that the 10,000 ISIS troops we were told about early last summer when this threat finally dawned on America has expanded to an estimated 30,000 now. Could there be 50,000 by the end of the year?
 
Coats nodded yes. “The trend is not good. As the CIA chief noted, it’s the cool thing to do.”
 
The fall of Baghdad would give this fledgling caliphate a capital city. “Then you’d have a state run by terrorists,” Coats said. And yet another round of genocide.
 
This result would be the exact opposite of President George W. Bush’s intent when he toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 to rid his potential use of weapons of mass destruction. Bush also envisioned “freedom” spreading across the Middle East. Now we face the prospect of a new terror state that has merged a Middle Age mentality of atrocities and slavery with a savvy Internet and YouTube campaign that is attracting the masses of unemployed and disaffected Muslim jihadists from the Middle East, Europe and even the United States.
 
“It’s an 8th Century mentality combined with 21st Century social media,” Coats explained.
 
An ISIS state with a capital has the potential of setting off an arms race Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt moving to develop nuclear weapons programs. While the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program celebrated Ukraine and Kazakhstan’s voluntary relinquishment of nukes more than a decade ago, with the Russians now threatening the former with occupation, the lesson has backfired. “If Ukraine had nukes, the Russians wouldn’t be doing what they are now,” Coats said.
 
President Obama has vowed to “destroy” ISIS.
 
While Coats backs this goal, he is critical of the strategy thus far, particularly the overt reluctance to use ground forces. He likened it to the Indianapolis Colts taking on the Seattle Seahawks in an NFL game, “but we tell them we’re not going to pass. And we’re only going to use eight players instead of 11.”
 
From an ISIS perspective, they know Americans are wary of Middle Eastern wars. Thus, the dare.
 
Coats notes this historical reality: The United States does not fare well in long, protracted campaigns to thwart insurgencies. Exhibit A would be Vietnam. Exhibit B would be Iraq debacle which has now yielded ISIS.
 
Bush picked a fight, Obama moved on, and in the vacuum, chaos reigns.
 
The blunt, harsh reality is that the U.S., NATO and moderate Middle Eastern states are going to have to go “all in,” Coats said, citing the Colin Powell Doctrine of using overwhelming force, as we did in expelling Saddam from Kuwait.
 
“It’s an harsh world,” Coats said. And that’s an understatement few Americans really grasp today.
 
The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.