Britain in Iraq
The government flip-flops between belligerence and caution
HOW seriously does the British government take the threat from Islamic State (IS),
an extremist group which has taken over swathes of Iraq and Syria?
Despite a flurry of pronouncements from the prime minister and from Michael Fallon,
Britain's defence secretary, it is growing increasingly hard to judge.
Writing in a newspaper on August 17th, David Cameron warned that Britain faces a “generational struggle” against a “poisonous ideology”.
Striking a Churchillian tone, the prime minister argued that Britain's very security depended on the country using all its resources,
aid, diplomacy and “military prowess” to vanquish this enemy. Tough stuff—perhaps the toughest from any Western leader so far.
Yet before leaving on holiday the following day Mr Cameron assured journalists that this fiery rhetoric did not mean Britain was returning to war in Iraq,
and that he had no intention to put “boots on the ground” against IS.
That was before the release of a horrific video on August 19th showing the beheading of a captured American journalist,
James Foley, by an IS militant who appeared to have a British accent.
Mr Cameron rushed back from his break in Cornwall to confer with ministers in London.
Confusion already surrounds the work Britain's armed forces are presently performing in Iraq.
Tornado bombers, helicopters, a spy plane, and some special forces are all operating in the north of the country—in particular near the city of Mosul.
The government has said these efforts are merely humanitarian, intended to help refugees besieged by IS fighters (see picture).
Yet on August 18th Mr Fallon was reported to have said that British forces were performing reconnaissance missions for Kurdish soldiers battling the jihadists.
Some think Britain is also supplying the Kurds with communications equipment and training.
What explains this prevarication? Mr Cameron is doubtless eager to avoid a repeat of the fiasco last year,
when the House of Commons voted against his urging that British forces intervene against the murderous regime of Syria's President Assad.
As well as shattering Western resolve, the episode was a personal humiliation for the prime minister.
If the government sounds too bellicose pressure will grow to recall parliament, currently in its summer recess, for a full debate.
Another risk is that Mr Cameron's pronouncements outstrip America's eagerness to act,
leaving Britain isolated should the Obama administration commit itself no further.
And the prime minister also has a war-weary public to contend with.
Polls suggest that a large minority of Britons would support taking some limited action against IS, such as arming the Kurds.
But winning public support for a larger scale conflict, however worthy the cause, looks almost impossible at present.
Mr Foley's murder may change this. His hooded killer's London accent has focused attention on the thousands of European—and particularly British—Muslims which IS has drawn to its banner.
Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment argues that this represents the “largest European Muslim foreign fighter contingent” that has gone to any conflict in modern history.
As many as 500 of them are thought to be British.
The clear risk is that these callow, inexperienced volunteers will return home as hardened and skilful jihadists,
ready, as Mr Cameron puts it, to “target us on the streets of Britain”.
Experts disagree on the scale of that threat. But even a very small number of returning extremists could cause considerable harm.
After haring back to Whitehall, the prime minister said authorities would redouble efforts to track down British jihadists,
and that the grisly video would not lead Britain to ramp up its involvement in the conflict.
There is a limit to how long Mr Cameron can keep his options open.