There is on the one hand Britain's top soldier, on the other its top politician, and depending upon which of the two the nation chooses to put its faith, the United States could find itself losing its key ally in the Iraq conflict rather sooner than later. The odds are on the soldier, General Sir Richard Dannatt, who believes the 7,000-plus British troops in that war-ravaged country have become part of the problem, rather than the solution.
General Dannatt, barely two months into his new job as the British army's chief of the general staff, sent shock waves resounding from Parliament and the office of the top politician, Prime Minister Tony Blair, to the White House and the Pentagon when he announced in an astonishing interview that "we (Britain) should get ourselves out soon, because our presence exacerbates the security problems."
The key word here is "soon", because it set the powerful general at loggerheads and at sharp variance with the Blair government's open-end policy of "we will stay there until the job is done, as long as it takes"-meaning the pacification and democratization of Iraq, a task that some respected political and military strategists have already said could take another decade, or even longer.
The general also described the government's goal of creating a liberal democracy in Iraq as "naïve", something that could not be achieved, and he suggested that that country, far from being pacified, is slipping toward civil war that could see it split into three feuding principalities of Sunni Muslims, Shi‘a Muslims and Kurds.
General Dannatt, a 55-year-old, be-medalled army hero who once wanted to become a priest, is generally viewed as honest, a "soldier's soldier", and his comments are certain to add fuel to the smoldering political fire that already has eaten away at Tony Blair's political career and turned him into a lame-duck prime minister. Under pressure, Blair has agreed to quit within the next year, a decision forced in part because of what has been perceived as his slavish devotion to U.S. foreign policy, particularly on Iraq-President George W. Bush's "poodle", in many British eyes.
As the body bags come home from that land, and Afghanistan, in increasing numbers, a stream of opinion polls shows that more than half the British public want the nation's troops out of the war zone, and soon. If Blair gives in-and members of his own ruling Labor Party government are listening to the general's remarks-Washington could well find itself with Britain no longer at its side and having to go it alone in Iraq.
Even if Blair steps down in the next few weeks or months, the outlook may not be much rosier for the United States. Gordon Brown, the man expected to succeed him as prime minister, is known to be lukewarm at best to Britain's military presence in Iraq, and in fact backed it only at the 11th hour before the war started three years ago after Blair threatened to fire him from his cherished job as chancellor of the Exchequer (Britain's secretary of the treasury) if he didn't.
General Dannatt said the seeds of the discontent were planted almost at the very start of the conflict. "The hope that we might have been able to get out of Iraq in 12, 18, 24 months after the initial start in 2003 have proved fallacious. Now hostile elements have got a hold, it has made our life much more difficult in Baghdad and in Iraq." And, he added, "we are in a Muslim country, and Muslims' views of foreigners in their country are quite clear."
Meanwhile, he said, "whatever consent we may have had in the first place, may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance."
Another arrow the general fired into Blair's crippled foreign policy was his contention-heatedly denied time and again by the government-that the invasion had a direct link to the "Islamic threat" in Britain, of the sort that saw 52 commuters killed by Muslim suicide bombers who attacked London's rail and bus system on July 7, 2005.
Publicly, the prime minister sought to shrug off General Dannatt's comments- saying, "I agree with every word of it", and suggesting that "differences of opinion" had been exaggerated and manufactured by the news media-only to side-step demands that he address the soldier's statements head-on. But it was clear that they had wrong-footed both the Blair and Bush Administrations as, behind the scenes, phone calls and messages flew for hours between the White House, the British embassy in Washington, Blair's 10 Downing Street office and the corridors of Britain's Ministry of Defense.
It appeared clear that time may be running out for the British army in Iraq, and that it has been running for some time. Mike Gapes, chairman of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament's House of Commons, said that "on the issue that (General Dannatt) is actually raising, military people were talking to me at the beginning of the year about an 18-month timetable for pulling right back."
Added former opposition Conservative Party defense spokesman Michael Portillo: "I don't think you can get this genie back into the bottle." Or as Lewis Moonie, a former armed forces minister in Blair's government, put it, "Iraq is a busted flush, and there is nothing we can do except patch it up and get out."
It is the sort of groundswell of British political and public opinion over the always emotive issue of life and death in a war zone that is certain to have Washington-itself only three weeks from elections in which Iraq is a major issue-more than a little worried, about a very possible future in that land of turmoil without its British ally by its side.
Al Webb is a freelance journalist based in Britain and a veteran foreign correspondent. He served as chief Middle East correspondent, based in Beirut, for US News & World Report magazine and with United Press International as a combat correspondent in Vietnam, bureau manager at United Nations headquarters in New York, chief Middle East correspondent based in Beirut, news editor based in Hong Kong for the Asian Division, and news editor for European-Middle East-Africa Division based in London.