In a democracy, generals take their orders from civilian politicians and, as a rule, do their best not to embarrass them. Seems the chief of the British army didn't get the memo. Last week General Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, gave interviews to the London Daily Mail and the bbc that had 10 Downing Street scrambling. True, Dannatt pointed out that British troops had made enough progress to turn over control of two southern provinces to Iraqi forces. But he also said that "the mere fact that we are still in some places exacerbates violence from those who want to destabilize Iraqi democracy."
The original hope of the U.S., Britain and their allies to install a liberal democratic government in Iraq, he thought, was out of reach and might have been "naive." "We should aim for a lower ambition," Dannatt said. The general wants Britain's 7,000 troops out "sometime soon" because "I want an army in five years' time, 10 years' time; don't let's break it on this one."
Not what you might call music to his boss's ears. When officials working for Tony Blair got first reports of Dannatt's newspaper interview, they wondered why he had taken the army's top job if he disagreed with its principal mission. When the full text arrived, Blair's aides decided that he was not frontally criticizing the PM's policy, but was instead sticking up for his beloved army in a less-than-media-savvy way. Blair held a press conference, stating that he agreed with every one of Dannatt's words. (Oh, sure: just imagine Blair saying that his ambitions for Iraq might have been naive, that British troops are a magnet for attack, or that they should leave soon because the army is under strain.)
In Washington, criticism of U.S. strategy and tactics flows copiously from retired generals, but serving military have been more circumspect in their comments. Ambitious officers remember the fate of Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who was frozen out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld after testifying in 2003 that an occupation force of "several hundred thousand" would be required in Iraq which contradicted Rumsfeld's conviction that a much smaller force would be sufficient. Shinseki was right, but Rumsfeld is still in charge. No senior U.S. officer has been fired or disciplined for mistakes or incompetent execution in Iraq, including Lieut. General Ricardo Sanchez, the Army general in command in Iraq at the time of Abu Ghraib, who is being allowed to retire quietly.
Officers who have seen the war in Iraq up close are often bitter about the get-along, go-along culture in Washington."I agree with General Dannatt," says one senior U.S. officer, but adds that to do so publicly would finish his career: "I would be sidelined like Shinseki." Dannatt, whatever his real intentions, at least spoke up and went on record. "Honesty is what it is about," he told the Daily Mail. "We have got to speak the truth."