The end of Iraq

The Obama administration hopes that Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups can reconcile and share power. It wants Iran to convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make concessions that placate Iraq's Arab Sunnis and stabilize the crisis. National reconciliation is the best possible outcome, but it is unlikely.

Working with Iran is a flawed strategy that would alarm Sunnis and alienate U.S. allies in the Gulf. The United States must be steely-eyed. Iraq is a failed state on the verge of collapse. The Obama administration must be careful not to encourage a break-out by the Kurds. At the same time, it needs a plan if Iraq falls apart and Kurdistan declares independence. The U.S. must anticipate events that would compel its recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent sovereign state.

Iraq has no tradition of reconciliation. Iraqis were at loggerheads for 10 months after national elections in 2010. The impasse over government formation finally ended when Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), mediated the Erbil Agreement between Iraqi factions. The post of prime minister was set aside for a Shiite; Maliki got the job. Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, stayed on as president and Usama al-Nujaifi, an Arab Sunni, became Speaker of the Parliament. The deal looked good on paper, but power-sharing was never implemented in practice. Maliki went out of his way to antagonize other groups. He arrested Arab Sunni politicians and contested territories in Iraqi Kurdistan, including Khanaqin near oil-rich Kirkuk.

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U.S. Vice President Joe Biden played an important role facilitating dialogue between Iraqis. Since then, however, U.S. influence has declined. The Pentagon wanted to leave a residual force in Iraq to train the Iraqi armed forces and provide a rapid response for counter-terrorism. Both sides could not agree on a "Status of Forces Agreement." Bahgdad balked when Washington demanded immunity for U.S. troops and contractors. Baghdad took "no" for an answer and withdrew all U.S. troops.

It was right to insist that Iraqis take responsibility for their country. But it was naïve to think Iraqis were ready to reconcile. Believing that Iraq's army was capable of protecting the country was also wrong.

Tribal fighters shout slogans while carrying weapons during a parade in Kerbala, south of Baghdad, June 18, 2014.
Tribal fighters shout slogans while carrying weapons during a parade in Kerbala, south of Baghdad, June 18, 2014.

Last week, Sunni jihadis from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poured across the Syrian border and routed the Iraqi army in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. ISIS raced across the desert, encountering little resistance in the Sunni heartland. They attacked Baquba just 25 kilometers from Baghdad. ISIS also advanced to the outskirts of Samarra, the site of the Great Golden Dome Mosque, one of Shia Islam's holiest shrines. Samarra has historic significance. Iraq's civil war erupted when Sunnis blew up the golden dome in 2006.

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A stalemate currently exists. So far, the Kurds have avoided military engagement. It's not their fight.

If Iraq disintegrates, the United States can still preserve its core interests by working in conjunction with the Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan is pro-Western, secular, and democratic. It has a proven track record of security and economic cooperation with the West.

In addition, Iraqi Kurdistan is rich in minerals and energy supplies. There are 45 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and vast natural gas fields. Exxon and other U.S. energy companies have a stake.

Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, America's ally and NATO member, are working closely together in the energy sector. Energy supplies from Iraqi Kurdistan are transported via new pipelines to Ceyhan, a Turkish port on the Eastern Mediterranean. Natural gas from fields northeast of Suleimani will feed into the Nabucco pipeline, supplying Turkish and European markets.

In the past, Turkey strongly opposed independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. It worried that Turkish Kurds, who number about 20 million, might want the same.

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However, the Turkish government has entered into peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan who leads the PKK, a militant Kurdish organization. The PKK announced a ceasefire and withdrawal of forces. Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan has promised greater political and cultural rights. Turkey's recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan's independence could be part of a grand bargain decommissioning the PKK and reforming discriminatory laws against Kurds.

Additionally, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would serve as a buffer between Turkey and Iraq. It could help prevent chaos, violence, ad refugees from spilling across the border.

Iraq was an artificial construct created by Great Powers at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Shiites and Sunnis have been in conflict for 13 centuries. Reconciliation is an even more remote possibility under current conditions of deadly violence.

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Instead of trying to placate its adversaries, the Obama administration should support the Kurds. It must see Iraq as it is, not how it wants Iraq to be. Wishful thinking is not a policy, nor effective crisis management. A new map of the Middle East is emerging.

Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the U.S. Department of State during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. He is also author of the forthcoming book, "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East" (Transaction Publishers).

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