« North Korea: What next? | Main | Round and Round the Doha Round. »

Exacerbating security problems in Iraq

What is the significance of General Sir Richard Dannett’s comments on Iraq? What will be the political fall-out?

It is not often that a Chief of the General Staff in the UK speaks out in public but when it happens it carries considerable political significance. The present incumbent in the post, the plain speaking, General Sir Richard Dannatt has done so twice now. He first drew attention, when he took office, to his view that the British Army is over-stretched. The second time, only this week, he stated that the Army’s presence in the Basra district of Iraq ‘exacerbates violence from those who want to destabilize Iraqi democracy’. This is not all that the General had to say in his original Daily Mail interview. He talked of the ‘original intention’ of being in Iraq as being that of setting up a ‘liberal democracy that was an exemplar for the region was pro-West and might have a beneficial effect on the balance within the Middle East’. He suggested that, given the experience to date, ‘we should aim for a lower ambition’.

It is seems to be widely accepted that Dannatt is articulating what many sections of the British Army feel, though Dannatt himself was quick to point out that he was talking neither of quitting nor of running. The issue is that of a timed and timely withdrawal, and, given what he had to say about 'lower ambition', of revising the objectives. The sensitive political issues that Dannatt, according to the lead article in the Times Online has been talking on are two: ‘Iraq and Afghanistan — which have in many ways defined the reputation and record of this government.’ Dannatt’s initial statements, later clarified, have not essentially been modified. He feels that he is representing in his statements concerning the ‘exacerbation of violence’ in the Basra area what the commanders and soldiers on the ground feel. He feels that he has an obligation to do this (he sees the Army as his ‘constituency’) and this makes him able to hold his ground against the politicians and the normal expectations of correct British civil service protocol.

There is nothing essentially new in this, from the point of view of those who comment regularly on Iraq. That is not the point. Rather, the fact that a senior figure has spoken out clearly in the difficult problem of helping or hindering the development of Iraqi responsibility in terms that are substantially different, according to the BBC, from the kind of language still used by Tony Blair must be significant. The two may claim that there thinking is close but as the BBC’s Nick Assinder points out ‘Imagine the prime minister had suggested- no matter how obliquely- that British troops were exacerbating security problems in Iraq or elsewhere’. Both Dannatt and Blair, in subsequent statements, have picked on aspects of what Dannatt originally said in order to present an united front. It is considered significant however, that Dannatt has not actually withdrawn anything that he originally said. Any suggestion that he somehow slipped up in talking as he did to the press, must surely be mistaken. Steadiness under fire can be assumed of a man who gained the Military Cross very early in his career. He is too an astute a leader not to have worked out exactly what he was doing.

What is the fallout, if any, from the fact that Sir Richard spoke his mind? Iraq is a significant political problem which will not go away or which will remain long un-discussed, nor indeed should it. For Blair, it keeps coming back. Those who have been consistently against the war will not let go of the General’s views. The 'how' and the 'when' of exiting will be discussed with more urgency. Iraq is the issue that politically stalks Blair. It is an issue that requires new thinking, not just in London but more especially in Washington. New thinking seems hard to come by. In the end, new thinking may require new thinkers.