The rise of the militant Sunni group Islamic State (IS - formerly ISIS) has thrown western policymakers, political bloggers and pundits into a frenzy. Deeply distressing scenes of IS atrocities against opponents in cities like Mosul and the wholesale flight of the Yazidi people into the inhospitable mountains has finally galvanised American and British leaders into some sort of humanitarian action.
Despite the catastrophic intervention in Iraq in 2003 and the on going disasters of Afghanistan and Somalia, there are plenty of people wanting us to get involved militarily again. Plenty of bloggers on sites like politicalbetting are advocating ,military action against IS claiming (rather spuriously) that if we don't stop IS in Iraq, they'll be marching down Piccadilly next week.
Do we have a moral responsibility to intervene ? It seems a peculiarly Anglo-American response - I don't see the Europeans, the Russians or the Chinese sending aid flights or striking IS targets. Is it as fundamental as how different societies perceive or value human life ? The Americans of course may feel they have some responsibility for the current position having destabilised Iraq up to and including the invasion of 2003 which brought down Saddam Hussein but which has left destruction and anarchy in its wake.
From the 1950s to the 1990s the West could only play the policeman role in a limited way - indeed, we often supported odious dictators like Mobutu, Marcos and Thieu in South Vietnam simply because they were opposed to Communism. Cold War military and diplomatic policy was predicated on the use of proxies - Castro was another and so was Israel whose creation in 1948 epitomised Cold War polarisation. As victorious Israel clung to America and the West, so the vengeful Arabs looked to Moscow for support and politically Arab socialism (or Ba'athism) took its cue from Moscow which begat both Assad in Damascus and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
These secular dictators were often bankrolled militarily by Moscow but when the Cold War ended with the fall of the USSR in 1989, everything changed. Saddam overplayed his hand disastrously in Kuwait while Assad kept his head down until his death after which his son seemed to be the voice of sweet reason but soon became his father's boy.
The new forces for change were not pro-western democrats but Islamists who took their cue from the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The dictators found themselves pressed by people as vicious as themselves. Saddam was weakened by Gulf War 1 and finished by Gulf War 2 but it seemed the Americans, as in Afghanistan after 2001, would establish a friendly Government and a bulwark in the region but it was not to be.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, those who cheered the fall of the dictator didn't then cheer the puppets of the invader - the dictator's fall gave the Islamists a chance - in Iraq the result has been civil anarchy with a Shia Prime Minister leaving the way clear for a militant Sunni revolt with said Sunnis joining and taking over the revolt in Syria.
Thus does a not insignificant part of the world stand on the cusp of anarchy - we have little or no political influence on the ground in the region so we have no one to help set a pro-western agenda. Instead, we face a myriad of conflicting evils - either a repellent Sunni hegemony or a radical Shia hegemony led by Teheran. The problem for us is that the nature of the internecine conflict within Islam runs the risk of spreading into the British Muslim community.
What then should we do ? I begin to suspect nothing is the best option. We have allowed humanity to suffer and genocides to occur in other parts of the world - Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s being two good examples. We can offer our services as mediators but it would be the height of foolishness, having extricated ourselves from the quagmire once, to walk back in again.