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The General's Misstep

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Gen. Richard Dannatt, the new chief of staff of the British army, was absolutely right when he said last week that Britain should withdraw its troops from Iraq "sometime soon" because their presence was fueling the insurgency, not quelling it. And Tony Blair, the prime minister whom Dannatt so expertly sandbagged, would have been absolutely right to fire him on the spot.

I don't know about you, but it makes me nervous when generals start publicly usurping the prerogatives of elected politicians -- even misguided politicians such as Blair who loyally follow their wrongheaded allies into bloody, pointless misadventures.

It's tempting for me, and must be tempting for other critics of the war, to praise Dannatt for his candor. But please hold your applause.

Generals should fight tenaciously not just on the battlefield but also, when necessary, in the briefing room. Within the confines of the Whitehall government complex or the prime minister's modest Downing Street residence, Dannatt should have told Blair exactly what he thought of the Iraq quagmire and the damage it was doing to the British military. Instead, he went over Blair's head to take his case directly to the public.

Bad form, Sir Richard.

From all indications, Dannatt knew exactly what he was doing. The incendiary comments came in an interview with a feature writer for the Daily Mail, and it was reportedly Dannatt, not the reporter, who led the conversation into dangerous territory. In the aftermath, the general and the prime minister have claimed to be in perfect agreement, but obviously they are not. Dannatt specifically has refused to take back his call for British troops to pull out of Iraq or his prediction that the goal set by Blair and George W. Bush -- establishing a Western-style democracy in the heart of the Middle East -- will not be achieved.

In context, it's clear that Dannatt's major concern is institutional -- he worries about what the grinding occupation of southern Iraq, where British forces are concentrated, is doing to the army he leads. In a BBC radio interview, Dannatt said he wants to make sure that five or 10 years from now, Britain still has healthy, capable military forces.

Worrying about the state of the armed forces is Dannatt's job, but taking that concern directly to the British public is not.

The principle that military officers have no independent agenda and follow the orders of elected civilian leaders is not one we have to think of very often in the United States or Great Britain. Let's keep it that way.

When I was The Post's correspondent in Buenos Aires in the late 1980s, a cabal of right-wing military officers would occasionally try to stage a coup. They'd shoot up the military headquarters building or take over a nearby base, but they always had to give up after a day or two. It had been only a few years since the last military dictatorship gave way, and the generals and admirals heading the armed forces wanted no part of another one -- not because they were so committed to democratic ideals but because they saw how exercising political power had degraded and corrupted the military institutions they loved.

People in Argentina and the other newly democratic South American nations I covered thought it was natural that "the military" would have its own institutional agenda and its own opinions about world and domestic affairs. But one of the great triumphs of modern democracy is that soldiers do what the politicians tell them to do -- and don't go out and seek public support when they think the politicians are wrong.

Could there be emergency situations when soldiers have to speak and act on their own? Sure, you could imagine an elected president or prime minister who goes certifiably bonkers and starts ordering nuclear strikes hither and yon. But as unwise as I think Bush and Blair are, their awful blunder in Iraq doesn't approach the level of insanity that would justify public defiance by their top generals. History, and voters, will have the last word.

Dannatt, being correct in his analysis of the situation and properly worried about the state of his army, had two choices: He could have argued his case to Blair privately, or he could have resigned and spoken out publicly. Probably he has already done the former. Had he done the latter, I'd be singing his praises.

But I don't like active-duty generals dabbling in politics, even if I agree with them. Dannatt should run for Parliament if he wants to set foreign policy. If I were Blair, I'd advance Dannatt's political career by relieving him of his current duties.


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