UK Army Chief Counsels Iraq Withdrawal

General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of British Army, has told a leading tabloid that the UK should withdraw from Iraq “soon” if it wants to avoid “breaking” the Army.

The Army could ‘break’ if it is kept too long in Iraq and British troops should be withdrawn ‘soon’, the head of the Army has said today. In a devastating broadside at Tony Blair’s foreign policy, General Sir Richard Dannatt said: “I want an Army in five years time and 10 years time. Don’t let’s break it on this one. Let’s keep an eye on time.”

His comments come after an exclusive interview with the Daily Mail, where Sir Richard warned that the continuing presence of British troops “exacerbates the security problems” in Iraq and added that a “moral and spiritual vacuum” has opened up in British society, which is allowing Muslim extremists to undermine “our accepted way of life.”

General Sir Richard Dannatt Photo The Chief of the General Staff believes that Christian values are under threat in Britain and that continuing to fight in Iraq will only make the situation worse.

His views will send shockwaves through Government. They are a total repudiation of the Prime Minister, who has repeatedly insisted that British presence in Iraq is morally right and has had no effect on our domestic security.

Sir Richard, who took up his post earlier this year, warned that “our presence in Iraq exacerbates” the “difficulties we are facing around the world.” He lambasts Tony Blair’s desire to forge a “liberal democracy” in Iraq as a “naive” failure and he warns that “whatever consent we may have had in the first place” from the Iraqi people “has largely turned to intolerance.”


“We are in a Muslim country and Muslims’ views of foreigners in their country are quite clear.” As a foreigner, you can be welcomed by being invited in a country, but we weren’t invited certainly by those in Iraq at the time. “The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in. Whatever consent we may have had in the first place, may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance.” “That is a fact. I don’t say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them.”

In comments that set him at loggerheads with Mr Blair, Gen Dannatt warns that the good intentions of 2003 have long since evaporated – pitching British troops into a lethal battle that few at home can understand. “I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning,” he said.

“The original intention was that we put in place 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.” “That was the hope, whether that was a sensible or naïve hope history will judge. I don’t think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition.”

The Prime Minister has repeatedly insisted that British troops must stay until the Iraqi security forces are able to take charge – a forlorn hope as the country has slipped to the brink of civil war.

Sir Richard warned that the consequences will be felt at home, where failure to support Christian values is allowing a predatory Islamist vision to take hold. He said: “When I see the Islamist threat in this country I hope it doesn’t make undue progress because there is a moral and spiritual vacuum in this country.” “Our society has always been embedded in Christian values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind.” “There is an element of the moral compass spinning. I think it is up to society to realise that is the situation we are in.”

“We can’t wish the Islamist challenge to our society away and I believe that the army both in Iraq and Afghanistan and probably wherever we go next, is fighting the foreign dimension of the challenge to our accepted way of life.” “We need to face up to the Islamist threat, to those who act in the name of Islam and in a perverted way try to impose Islam by force on societies that do not wish it.” “It is said that we live in a post Christian society. I think that is a great shame. The broader Judaic-Christian tradition has underpinned British society. It underpins the British army.”

Dannatt is now backpeddling a bit:

Britain’s army chief, who set off a political storm by calling for troops to be withdrawn from Iraq “soon,” said Friday he meant a phased withdrawal over two or three years, and denied that he was attacking government policy.

Gen. Richard Dannatt gave a series of interviews after newspapers ran front-page stories interpreting his remarks published Thursday by The Daily Mail as a critique of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s policy.

Dannatt said in the initial interview that the British military should “get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems.” On Friday morning, he insisted Britain stood “shoulder to shoulder with the Americans, and their timing and our timing are one and the same.” “We’ll probably reduce our soldiers over the course of the next year or two or three — let’s wait and see. That’s what I mean by sometime soon,” Dannatt said in an interview with Sky News. “We don’t do surrender. We don’t pull down white flags. We’re going to see this through,” Dannatt said in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Kevin Drum notes that there were rumors of this a couple weeks ago.

The secret memo made it clear that Dannatt tried to privately broker a deal last month to pull British troops out of Iraq and transfer them to Afghanistan, where he thinks we still have a chance to make a difference, but was turned down. Now he’s gone public. I wonder if there are any American generals who agree with him?

Quite likely. Today’s top generals began their career during the tail end or immediate aftermath of Vietnam and are rightfully still quite leery of getting bogged down in someone else’s civil war. And the use of the military for nation-building vice full-scale wars is still something they engage in reluctantly. It should be noted, however, that we have to speculate as to what sitting American generals think about this issue because they have the professional discipline to keep their mouths shut.

Dannatt’s vision of the world of clashing religions is rather unusual, especially coming from a top military man. His view of what’s happening in Iraq and the likelihood of achieving the ambitious goal of a bulwark of democracy there may well be right; the trends are certainly in his favor.

Still, Blair simply has to fire him. It really doesn’t matter who is right here: Soldiers serve the elected civilian leadership and do what they must to carry out state policy. If they believe strongly that the politicians are wrong, they have a duty to speak their minds behind closed doors and seek to influence the decision-makers. If that fails and they can not in good conscience obey their orders, then they must resign and take their case public. It can simply be no other way.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, Middle East, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Vigilante says:

    Shock and Awe, Baby! Mission accomplished! Let’s get the fook out!

  2. Anderson says:

    At first I agreed w/ JJ about firing the guy, but now I wonder.

    Is it the duty of the military to remain silent in public if the armed forces are being decimated in a project that armed force can’t accomplish?

    At the very least, the military should have some recourse to Parliament, rather than the executive’s having the unilateral power to destroy the nation’s military.

    Over here, we have the problem that the JCS, whatever the law says, doesn’t seem to consider itself responsible to the Congress, only to the President. That is, constitutionally and otherwise, just plain wrong. Colonel McMasters’ Dereliction of Duty demonstrated how disastrous that was in Vietnam, and he could well write a sequel about Iraq II.

  3. Triumph says:

    Still, Blair simply has to fire him.

    He should be waterboarded first.

  4. James Joyner says:


    The problem is that Unity of Command is one of the fundamental principles of military service. Ultimately, the President is the commander-in-chief and Congress merely has oversight and signs the checks. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has an obligation to be truthful and candid with Congress when he testifies before them but, otherwise, he is subordinate to the SECDEF and President.

    The UK has cabinet government so, in effect, the PM is the head of Parliament (or at least the Commons). Absent a vote of no confidence, they’re a rubber stamp.

  5. Pug says:

    Is it the duty of the military to remain silent in public if the armed forces are being decimated in a project that armed force can’t accomplish?


  6. Gary Denton says:

    The only unusual thing about this is that Blair was able to support the US at all in going in.

    I notice how those who have never been in the military manage to replay “The Charge of the Light Brigade” updated to this century, much like this whole war, and are now experts on British politics and military policy as well as American.

    Meanwhile, the John Murtha plan of redeployment, still being called “cut-and-run” by Bush and the GOP and made fun of on this website, will be presented to Bush after the election by the Baker committee as the most viable option.

  7. legion says:

    Is it the duty of the military to remain silent in public if the armed forces are being decimated in a project that armed force can’t accomplish?
    Well, I have no idea what the Brit military says, but in the US, that’s a fine line. If the boss gives an order you don’t like, you shut up and carry it out. Period.

    If the boss gives a dangerously irresponsible order, you have the option of going ‘over his head’ to the next level… but you better be mighty damn sure you’re right & your boss is more than a little wrong. And I’m not real sure how that would apply to the SecDef or CinC; who should a general complain to?

    And finally, we are _all_ taught (and have been since long before Abu Ghraib) that if you are given a clearly illegal order, you have an _affirmative duty_ not just to refuse it, but to report that person to the proper authorities. If you don’t perform both those tasks, you are just as liable for criminal charges when the hammer finally falls.

    The question then becomes: just how endangered _is_ the UK military vis-a-vis Iraq; what category does Dannatt’s commentary (or would equivalent commentary from a US general) fall into?

  8. Gary Denton says:

    Sorry, I missed where that was James Joyner’s opinion and not some typical chicken hawk.

    At what point would the ranking general of the Army be entitled to say this administration is destroying the Army? Only after he resigns and can be derided as someone not receiving the current reports, as has happened in the U.S.?

  9. Cernig says:


    You’re flat wrong. British soldiers do not directly serve the elected civilian leadership. The British Army’s Commander in Chief is the Queen, not the Prime Minister. (BTW, she is also the head of state.) He can say anything he bloody wants about the PM’s policies, as Tony is outwith his chain of command. The PM is in all ways and at all times a civilian. When the PM wants to use the armed forces, he asks the Queen – that’s why they all have “Royal” in front of them (Army, Navy, Air Force).

    Nor is there any executive “privilege” (lit: private law) within the UK parliamentary system except that given by a vote of Parliament, where the PM is a single voter as he is just an MP like all the others. Where there isn’t a clear majority or where there’s a backbench revolution it is quite common for the UK parliament not to just rubber-stamp a PM’s wishes. (E.g. the recent refusal to extend detention time without charges or court order to 90 days).

    Oh, and Nuremberg established that a serving officer – of any nation – has a duty to not only refuse orders that would cause war crimes, but to actively prevent them being carried out if at all possibe – from within the military. The senior presiding judge for that decision was an American, you know.

    Regards, Cernig (A Brit)

  10. anjin-san says:

    I guess that Dannat is joining other far-left, moonbat, cut & run, terrorist symps like John Warner and James Baker who are beginning to come out and say the we need to rethink Bush’s splendid little war…

  11. mike says:

    Aren’t we missing the point? The highest ranking British soldier says that our presence makes the situation worse; meanwhile the Administration thinks every thing is going well or is still on track. Perhaps a new strategy is in order – how about bribes? we haven’t tried that yet. a democracy in Iraq? Many experts thought it would never happened…and they were right.

  12. Anderson says:

    Interesting, Cernig.

    JJ’s point is probably valid re: the U.S. — Congress has about as much oversight as it wants, and under the Republican regime, that’s been slim to none.

    The party that supposedly is proudest of the U.S. armed forces, has expressed its deep contempt for them and what they stand for. Nice.

  13. legion says:

    Wow, Cernig – that’s very enlightening. I never would’ve figured the PM had so little direct control over the military. Certainly puts a different spin from the US POV…

  14. Cernig says:


    It’s a rubber-stamp job. If ever a Monarch refused her Prime Minister’s request for the use of the military to carry out his government’s policy it would spark a constitutional crisis. But it is still a very important constitutional distinction which Blair cannot ignore. That’s why he won’t fire the general.

    To fire Gen. Dannett, Blair would have to ask the Queen to do so. The general’s only had his job a few weeks; Blair was the man who asked the Queen to appoint Dannett; the general has the right to speak up; the request would be seen as petty political spite and the Queen, who has shown in the past she is very aware of constitutional niceties, might just refuse his request. He cannot afford to take that chance because that would be a constitutional crisis too and Blair would lose the contest.

    And let’s remember an important detail – General Dannett isn’t saying he is refusing to carry out his orders to the best of his ability, he is just exercising his right to say publicly what he thinks of them.

    Oh, and James, here’s what Thomas Barnett has to say:

    To me, this is the Brit Army voting with their mouthpiece, and it’s telling.

    I really liked Peter Beinart’s bit on Kudlow a couple nights back, saying that the perceived GOP-v-Dems split on Iraq would dissolve right after the election, with many conservatives joining Dems to get Bush to change policy. The only way that can work–namely, a significant drawdown of U.S. forces (don’t kid yourselves, we won’t leave fully, as we never leave anywhere fully)–is for us to enlist a lot of local help, to include first and foremost Iran.

    Regards, C

  15. James Joyner says:


    Very interesting, if strange to my sensibilities. Blair is the defacto commander-in-chief albeit with the nicety of having to go through the pretend monarch-for-tourists. It’s bizarre to me that one of his underlings can pop off without consequence; it destroys unity of command.

  16. Cernig says:


    I have to disagree – he isn’t disobeying orders so what it destroys is unity of opinion rather than unity of command. the former is a political matter, the latter is military. The Magna Carta showed that, in Britain at least, subordinates have a duty to speak out when the leader is off course.

    I’m interested though in your opinion on Barnett’s take. It seems obvious to me that no-one is going to get elected to the White House in ’08 with a policy of “I will stay Bush’s course on the Iraq occupation”. Plus, after the midterms, all those GOPers will be free to dissent from the Bush course without any political fallout, knowing their next candidate will do the same thing. Do you agree with Barnett that we will see a lot of GOP reps and senators dissenting after the midterms, in an attempt to set up a policy that the next candidate can agree with?

    Regards, C

  17. James Joyner says:


    It seems to me that Magna Carta basically established that wealthy landowners had certain rights that were inalienable by the king, rather than having much of anything to do with “speaking out.” The lords were merely fighting for self-interest, not (intentionally at least) setting a course correction for the affairs of state.

    At any rate, when you have the military brass and the civilian leadership publically disagreeing on matters of war policy, you create (or at least exacerbate) dissention in the ranks. Theirs is only to do and die and all that.

    Barnett is quite often right and I think he’s on to something here. I’m sure there are many more Republicans than are currently speaking out who think we should get out of Iraq.

    Further, I think we’ll be “out” of Iraq by the end of Bush’s term regardless. We’ll have a substantial advisory/logistical force in the FOBs for years to come, I suspect, but we’ll turn the most visible face over to the Iraqis. Dannatt’s right that having white faces at the pointy tip of the spear creates its own set of problems.