This article is a contribution from James Le Grice, of our network partner Insight Public Affairs, based in London. Find more about them at http://insightpublicaffairs.com/

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has left the American and British governments in an awkward balancing act between politics and national security. When polled, the majority of Americans have said they think the Iraq War was a mistake, and overwhelmingly supported President Obama’s troop withdrawal in 2011. Indeed, much of the President’s political capital stemmed from his consistent opposition to what he once labelled a “dumb war.”

Understandably, Mr Obama has been hesitant to deploy anything more than military advisers to confront Iraq’s current crisis. To say it would be a hard sell to American voters in a mid-term election year is a tremendous understatement. Likewise, if President Obama declares the prospect of a terrorist state in Iraq a severe enough threat to merit military action, he would commit the biggest volte-face of any president in recent history.

But if the appetite for intervention is poor in America, it is destitute in America’s main ally, where there is the added perception that Iraq was somebody else’s problem.

This article is a contribution from James Le Grice, of our network partner Insight Public Affairs, based in London. Find more about them at http://insightpublicaffairs.com/

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has left the American and British governments in an awkward balancing act between politics and national security. When polled, the majority of Americans have said they think the Iraq War was a mistake, and overwhelmingly supported President Obama’s troop withdrawal in 2011. Indeed, much of the President’s political capital stemmed from his consistent opposition to what he once labelled a “dumb war.”

Understandably, Mr Obama has been hesitant to deploy anything more than military advisers to confront Iraq’s current crisis. To say it would be a hard sell to American voters in a mid-term election year is a tremendous understatement. Likewise, if President Obama declares the prospect of a terrorist state in Iraq a severe enough threat to merit military action, he would commit the biggest volte-face of any president in recent history.

But if the appetite for intervention is poor in America, it is destitute in America’s main ally, where there is the added perception that Iraq was somebody else’s problem. The popular sentiment in Britain is that former Prime Minister Tony Blair sacrificed British interests to be seen as the US’ partner and made the UK a target of Islamist terrorism. Mr Blair has faced a trial-like examination from the official government inquiry into the Iraq War, whose main focus is on why and how Britain got involved, and which is currently under pressure to publish all of the pre-war correspondence between Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

The vilification of Tony Blair runs so deep that when he voices his opinions on Syria and the present Iraq crisis, the British media, both liberal and conservative, caricature him as an unrepentant hawk. Political leaders and commentators who might agree with his views have carefully distanced themselves from him.

Additionally, Britain’s exit from Iraq was marked by humiliation. The US could withdraw with dignity after major victories over ISIS’ predecessor, and triumphs in a proxy war with Iran, having forced the Iranian-trained Mahdi Army to disarm and engage with the Iraqi government through peaceful political channels.

Britain’s withdrawal followed the rapid disintegration of security in Basra, under British control, at the hands of Shia militias competing for control of the territory. It signalled that the UK was “cutting and running”, leaving the US to pick up the pieces, and that British armed forces had been defeated by a technologically inferior foe.  Whereas at the start of the occupation, US commanders were keen to follow the example of their British counterparts, more experienced in counter-insurgency from Northern Ireland, by the end they analysed the British example as a case-study of what not to do. These wounds are still sore, and British military prestige has yet to recover.

For these reasons, the memory of Iraq has been a major deterrent to overseas involvement. Prime Minister David Cameron may have led the charge for air strikes against Colonel Gaddafi while President Obama was sceptical, but he showed no zeal to involve Britain in Libya’s political reconstruction. When Mr Cameron called for British intervention in Syria, he found himself reengaged in the Iraq War debates, and was defeated in a House of Commons vote. This was the first time that a Prime Minister had been outvoted on war since 1782, when Parliament refused to continue Britain’s seven-year counter-insurgency campaign in America.

At the same time, the national security threat posed by a breakaway ISIS state speaks for itself. The closest the world has seen to this in recent history is Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the forward operating base of Osama Bin Laden’s global terror franchise. The difference is that, after robbing Mosul’s central bank, ISIS is wealthier than Osama Bin Laden’s organisation ever was, and has the means to become far wealthier, with oil fields in Syria and Iraq’s largest refinery now under its control. Furthermore, after seizing Iraqi army bases, ISIS is equipped with sophisticated American military hardware, including Humvees, body armour, night vision goggles, and artillery.

For Britain, ISIS’ most dangerous asset is the hundreds of British citizens it counts among its troops. The UK Government estimates that 400 Britons have travelled to Syria to join jihadist groups, and one Member of Parliament recently calculated a higher figure of 1,500. While it is unknown how many of these are fighting with ISIS, the group has just released a recruitment video featuring British fighters extolling the virtues of jihad.

The fear in Britain is that these jihadists will return home and carry out terrorist attacks in the UK. Indeed, some British members of ISIS are already boasting of the massacres they seek to cause in Britain, including bombing polling stations in next year’s general election. These threats carry resonance given Britain’s well established problem of home-grown terror. The perpetrators of the July 2005 attacks on London’s transport system, which killed 52 people, were British citizens. Last year’s shocking murder of a British soldier in the streets of London for waging “war on Islam” was carried out by two British men. Numerous other home-grown plots have been foiled, and prior to ISIS’ capture of Mosul, the top news story in the UK was an alleged scheme by Islamic fundamentalists to infiltrate school boards and indoctrinate children.

Regardless of whether Iraq was previously “somebody else’s problem” as much of the British public believe, it is now a very British problem, and arguably more so than an American one. However, due to the fear of intervention and budget cuts that slimmed its military, Britain’s response is likely to focus predominantly on the home front. There is a sense of urgency amongst Government ministers to prevent British jihadists from returning home, and the Government has already revoked the passports of some citizens who have gone to fight in Syria. However, monitoring the hundreds of Britons, let alone the hundreds from other countries with EU passports, who travel to Iraq will test the limits of intelligence services already complaining of the strain that the Syrian crisis has placed on them.

David Cameron knows that purely defensive measures will not be enough to defuse ISIS’ threat to Britain, but at present his strategy appears to be to leave intervention to either America or Iran. Seeking the help of the latter would be an ironic move, as Britain was effectively driven out of Iraq by Iranian-backed militias. However, the UK has reopened its embassy in Tehran as an overture to collaboration. Given that President Obama faces a similar political balancing act over Iraq, Iran may well become Britain’s key ally on the ground. As one renowned Englishman wrote: “Misery aquaints a man with strange bedfellows”.