Slowly we are waking up to an unfolding horror in Iraq.  The black flag waving Islamic State (ISIS) has tortured and murdered civilians, razed Christian monuments to the ground, and created a terrified exodus of refugees.

The West's response should be furious and decisive.  When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Margaret Thatcher famously told President George H Bush that this was "no time to go wobbly."  Britain should be at the shoulder of the United States, using our leverage to encourage the world's greatest power to use it.

But on both sides of the Atlantic bitterness over the second Iraq war runs deep, compounded now by a widespread belief that the Arab Spring proved less a new dawn than the dangerous unleashing of militancy.  In the salons of St James, sage foreign affairs heads nod knowingly: better a Middle Eastern despot brutally holding his country together, they always thought, than risk democracy and unlock jihadism.  The tragedy is that after Iraq, Libya and Egypt, the British public now agree with this morally repugnant sentiment.  The Arab Spring has become democracy's fall.

Still, the brutality of ISIS is so terrible, its extremism so manifest, the threat to our own security so direct, that even the most recalcitrant have been jolted into declaring that something must be done.  A majority of the public now favour air strikes.  The politicians who opposed military action in Syria are lining up to explain why Iraq is different.  That our failure to give sufficient support to the secular forces fighting Assad allowed this Islamic insurgency has passed them by.

A hesitant Obama has belatedly ordered military strikes against ISIS forces.  We won't join in.  We are supplying substantial aid and arms length military assistance, including airlifting out refugees.  But the Prime Minister who acted so decisively in the face of atrocity in Benghazi, and attempted the same after Assad used chemical weapons only to be slapped down by an angrily recalled House of Commons, can hardly be blamed for declining to invite a second humiliation.

Perhaps the MPs who refused pleas for military equipment from the rebels in Syria will now permit the arming of Kurdish forces desperately trying to defend themselves.  In the meantime, what will we do?  Rub in the sun tan lotion and lie back on our beaches, while innocent civilians we set out to liberate flee for their lives, hoping for a food parcel to drop from the sky, waiting for an enfeebled West to pull its head out of the sand.

Christopher N Howarth