LONDON — For a century and more, Iraq has been the graveyard of Western dreams, often literally, from the defeat of British colonial forces in the First Battle of Kut in 1916 to the bloodshed that flowed from the American-led invasion in 2003.
Terror has long played a central part in defining Iraq to outsiders — not least in the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein that terrorized Iraqis with its Mukhabarat secret police, its feared Republican Guard, its chemical weapons turned against the Kurdish minority in Halabja in 1988.
The fear that such a regime might deploy weapons of mass destruction was central to the flawed logic in the so-called war on terror after Sept. 11, culminating in the invasion that overthrew Mr. Hussein. No such weapons were ever found. Instead, the invasion marked the incubation of Sunni militancy in lands where it had once been contained.
Now, with reports of serial beheadings and crucifixions, ISIS has written its own lurid chapter. Think only of the video footage this week of an American journalist, James Foley, executed by an ISIS jihadi who speaks with a British accent.
In Britain, great intersections of history such as these challenge politicians to seize the Churchillian moment when complexity is distilled into the most resonant call to arms.
Pity, then, poor David Cameron.
Nothing, perhaps, encapsulated the challenges facing the British prime minister as much as a blaring front-page headline in The Daily Mirror tabloid: “SAS Must Wipe Out Brit Jihadis.”
Decoded, that meant that British forces from the Special Air Service should be sent to Iraq and should not shy from killing British Muslims, hundreds of whom are reported to have joined ISIS.
“If the SAS come across an English fighter out there, he will not be shown any mercy,” said Chris Ryan, a former SAS operative and author. Neither, it seemed from the video of Mr. Foley’s death, is there an abundance of mercy among the jihadis including the foreign recruits who, Western governments fear, may carry their fight to Europe.
“It really is time that we joined the dots,” said Paddy Ashdown, a former Special Forces commander and onetime head of the Liberal Democrats, comparing “a widening Sunni-Shiite war” to Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century, recasting an entire region, not least in the Middle East, by emboldening separatist-minded Kurdish minorities who have emerged as the West’s prime allies in Iraq.
But the dots simply refuse to join up.
In the Syrian civil war, the West supports a secular Sunni opposition seeking to unseat President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which, in turn, is rooted in the Alawite offshoot of Shiism and is backed by Shiites in Lebanon and Iran. In Iraq, by contrast, the West, Mr. Assad and Iran share a common interest in opposing Sunni zealots.
Small wonder that Britons, including Anglican clergy worried about the plight of beleaguered Iraqi Christians, accuse Mr. Cameron of incoherence — the same charge that haunts President Obama.
In another era, the campaign against ISIS might have merited the massed divisions and the soaring rhetoric of 2003. But this campaign is the step-child of that war.
The appetite for the fray has been drained by years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. A year ago, Parliament denied Mr. Cameron authorization for military intervention in Syria. Cuts in defense spending have eroded what Mr. Cameron calls Britain’s “military prowess.”
“Britain is not going to get involved in another war in Iraq,” he said as American warplanes and military strategists again took the lead in Iraq. “We are not going to be putting boots on the ground.”
That might just be the least unpalatable of his political options and the most difficult of his promises.
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(via NY Times)