- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

The United Kingdom (U.K.) is facing its biggest crisis in civil-military relations since the Second World War. Six weeks into his new job, the head of the British Army, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, has broken constitutional protocol by appearing to contradict government policy on Iraq.

On Friday morning a dramatic wide-ranging interview with Gen. Dannatt was published in the London Daily Mail. He warned that the presence of U.K. troops was exacerbating security problems in Iraq and should withdraw “sometime soon.” He also said that the planning for post-war occupation was “poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning.”

The original ambition was to install liberal democracy: “Whether that was a sensible or naive hope, history will judge. I don’t think we are going to do that…We should aim for a lower ambition.” The general also talked of his Christian values, and the moral vacuum that allows radical Islam to flourish in Britain.

This ignited a media frenzy about the general wanting to quit Iraq soon, thus contradicting Prime Minister Tony Blair’s statement that it would be “craven surrender” to leave Iraq while it was still in turmoil.

This in turn generated shock waves in the prime minister’s office, and allegedly furious phone calls from Washington.

Opposition politicians viewed the general’s remarks as “blindingly obvious,” but said that saying them publicly was “unprecedented.”

Some military commentators were astounded at the “breach of propriety” and wondered if the general had been misquoted and, if not, whether he would be sacked.

No doubt under orders to recant, the general immediately did a round of media interviews to “clarify” his remarks — despite the fact that the original Daily Mail interview had been authorized.

This “clarification” perhaps made matters worse when the general implied that the army could be “broken” if it is kept too long in Iraq. The prime minister’s office rushed to say that Tony Blair “agreed with every word.” The Ministry of Defence also issued a further statement that the general was on the record as standing “shoulder to shoulder with the Americans” and that he was planning “force packages in Iraq through 2007 to 2008.”

But the genie was out of the bottle. The British Army is running out of soldiers, equipment and patience, though not fighting spirit. The British military establishment fears it is reinforcing failure in Iraq. The plan to engage in Afghanistan, and so be allowed to leave Iraq, has backfired.

It had been assumed in London that Washington’s exit strategy was to be asked to leave by Baghdad. Instead, the beleaguered Iraqi government will cling on to its coalition security blanket as long as possible. Britain’s premature departure, however, may prompt U.S. withdrawal.

A prime minister would normally sack a general who publicly undermined the central plank of his premiership, especially as it also threatens the fundamentals of U.S. foreign policy.

The senior professional politicians in the Labor government, unlike some in the Conservative opposition, have no firsthand military experience. And Tony Blair is a lame-duck prime minister. He may be too weak to sack his forthright general.

A behind-the-scenes forced resignation, especially if it were seen to be a result of U.S. pressure, would trigger more unrest in the armed forces, perhaps even a joint demarche by other commanders. Recently retired chiefs of the defense staff have publicly declared their concerns.

The security establishment has long been calling for a service chief to stand up to what it sees as political bungling in the direction of the wars.

Defense chiefs know that Iraq could descend into a maelstrom of total chaos, and they do not want to desert an ally or leave the job unfinished. But no end is in sight, and the British army can only just about cope now, let alone in the future.

The general must have felt that the views of the senior military had too long been ignored. Some top brass had become political ciphers or had been effectively gagged.

But Gen. Dannatt’s frankness may be dangerous. Civilian control of the military is a cornerstone of Western democracy. Gen. Douglas MacArthur threatened to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese army in Korea, but he was relieved of his command by President Truman.

Gen. Dannatt’s comments might also undermine his own troops fighting in the Middle East — why should they risk death for a policy which their own top commander has said, in effect, is inflaming the war on terror? But even the Ministry of Defence will privately admit that troops in the field are “cheering him to the rooftops”; nearly all the unofficial army blogs confirm this. British forces can now imagine withdrawal, regardless of the U.S. timetable.

Some British officers say that it is about time senior U.S. generals spoke their mind, rather than wait for retirement before they complain that American forces are also overstretched, and perhaps the U.S. army could not field more than two brigades to operate outside Afghanistan or Iraq. In this context, General Dannatt may have done his American ally a service.

Officers will risk their lives but never their careers. General Dannatt’s bravery is beyond doubt: he won the coveted Military Cross when he was 22. Now he is risking the top job for the army he loves.

Paul Moorcraft, the director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis, is a former senior instructor at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and the U.K. Joint Services Command and Staff College.

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