General Sir Richard Dannatt, the army's biggest gun, has blown apart Blair's promises and exposed the disaster our leaders try to hide
Sunday October 15, 2006
History will forgive the war on Iraq. Or so Tony Blair told the US Congress in July 2003, as the first cold shadows fell on the invasion. The Prime Minister also warned of 'many further struggles ahead'. He cannot have imagined that these would include being gunned down by the head of the British army. By calling for a pull-out from Iraq, General Sir Richard Dannatt has reversed the view of the French wartime leader, Georges Clemenceau, that 'war is too serious a matter to entrust to military men'. In Dannatt's view, it is too vital to be left to the sofa warriors of Downing Street. His men have had enough, and he has said so.
The military can barely hide their glee. The previous head, Sir Michael Jackson, was seen by soldiers as Blair's puppet. Now they have a leader who puts the army first. Dannatt may not share this jubilation. Naivety, or every general's tendency to rank himself just below God in the cosmic line management structure, led him into an unintended row.
As he must know, Iraq is rarely kind to generals. In April 1915, General Sir Charles Townshend had a nervous breakdown on the road from Basra, shortly before his troops were decimated. His successor, General Sir Stanley Maude, died of cholera. Almost a century after the last, doomed British invasion, another general decides that the game is almost up.
Blair, briefed throughout the night as the mutiny unfolded, has smoothed over the cracks, but Dannatt has been warned to stay out of trouble. Ever since Caesar defied the Senate and crossed the Rubicon, politicians have been wary of over-mighty soldiers. Another outburst, and this one would have to go.
Many war-brokers bend their constitutional roles. Blair has behaved as an unanointed commander-in-chief: Dannatt has adapted the role of General MacArthur, fired by President Truman for trying to declare war on China. Unlike MacArthur, Dannatt has become an all-purpose hero, feted not just by soldiers but by troops-out campaigners.
Be wary. The general is talking about preserving the army, not the fragile lives of Iraqi citizens. British soldiers in the south have been better able - and may still be - to help stave off social collapse than their counterparts in Baghdad. But when troops are failing to protect citizens' lives or hinder the slide towards civil war, they have to leave. That line may well have been crossed. The results of a disastrous invasion should be debated in Parliament. They should have dominated Labour party conference. How shameful that the gravest of all foreign policy issues has been left to a soldier speaking out of turn.
The promises of a better tomorrow are in ruins now. Our troops will be off shortly, possibly barring a small presence in the south. Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University, doubts that a British force will be in place in 12 months' time. There would be no schism. Blair would leave office first, allowing his successor to profess allegiance to George W Bush's strategy while hiving troops off to fight in Afghanistan, which is still winnable. (Quite how, when the obstacles are greater, the terrain harder, the insurgency more vicious and the track record of invaders even worse than in Iraq, neither Dannatt nor the government can explain.)
Any rift with US foreign policy would be airbrushed out, just like the Dannatt outburst. The PM wants British troops out of Iraq. The general says withdrawal must be 'soon'. What's one small word of difference between friends, ask the semanticists of Downing Street? If only the fissures in Iraq could be filled in so easily.
On Friday, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) issued its bleakest assessment. Conflict has displaced 1.5 million people inside Iraq; a tide of refugees swells the 1.6 million living outside the country. The Lancet's estimate of 655,000 deaths since the conflict began is not only in a different stratosphere from Bush's ballpark figure of 30,000 'more or less'. It is also evidence of the asymmetry in the death roll of the war on terror.
In contrast to the attrition in Iraq, no US citizen has died in an Islamist attack on US soil since 9/11. Neo-con certainties about gun-barrel democracy have perished, naturally, and the graveyards of political theory bristle with their memorials. But, like a headless chicken, the strategy stumbles on. Dig in for victory. No British exit is likely to change that course any time soon.
Even all-out anarchy would be unlikely to dislodge the US, which would impose martial law, according to Amyas Godfrey, a strategic expert and former aide-de-camp to a British general in Iraq. No Republican administration, and possibly no Democrat one, would dare risk the ripple effect of a collapsed state.
Meanwhile, the fate of Iraqis grows more hideous. A road-sweeper says he works with 'his soul in his hands'. Stand on the Syrian border and you will see, each day, 1,000 refugees fleeing Iraq. They drive Mercedes and Chevrolets, these doctors or engineers driven out by kidnap, rape and brutality from streets where muggers kill for a mobile phone.
A middle class is on the move, to Syria, Jordan and to Europe. Such itinerants are not poor, but they soon will be. Their host countries will grow weary of a diaspora sinking into destitution. The UNHCR believes this exodus is the biggest displacement in the Arab world since the flight from Palestine in 1948. Meanwhile, those without the means to leave stay home and die.
This is what British troops and up to one in 40 Iraqis died for. It is the closing chapter and the legacy of the invasion the Prime Minister commended to history. It is the scandal from which ministers avert their eyes, muttering how pleased they are that Saddam is gone. Obviously it would be wrong to deny all hope. The Iraqi government and institutions may live on, long after Dannatt's troops have gone, but the chances of peace are diminishingly slender.
The general has spoken far beyond his remit and snatched power a soldier should never have. But he has, at least, punctured the public weariness that lets politicians gloss over disaster. At this bleak crossroads, British invaders can plough straight on to nemesis, or turn and walk away. Both routes are marked 'Betrayal'.
Maybe the best that can be done is to help the refugees and to resolve never again to fight a war like this. If so, it is time to admit it. It is time to say sorry for the folly and the carnage, not to pretend, as a nation is eviscerated, that all can be redeemed and excused. The Prime Minister may forgive an army general. History will not be so merciful to Mr Blair.