When Adm. William J. Fallon announced his early retirement on Tuesday, the same day Esquire released an article online called “The Man Between War and Peace,” he made it clear his publicly expressed views had created a problem that could be solved only by his stepping down as the head of U.S. Central Command. In leaving, he said that “recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the president’s policy objectives have become a distraction at a critical time and hamper efforts in the Centcom region.”
That left a lot of room for interpretation: Was this primarily about Iran? Iraq? High-level insubordination? Disagreements with his own subordinate, Army Gen. David Patraeus, who will come before Congress within weeks to talk about the surge in Iraq? Was it that Fallon actually was attempting to hold off a sought-after war with Iran, as the Esquire article suggested, or merely that his statements gave that perception — and thereby undercut U.S. diplomatic policy, which requires Iran to see U.S. military action as possible?
According to Thom Shanker, writing in the New York Times, “Admiral Fallon had rankled senior officials of the Bush administration in recent months with comments that emphasized diplomacy over conflict in dealing with Iran, that endorsed further troop withdrawals from Iraq beyond those already under way and that suggested the United States had taken its eye off the military mission in Afghanistan. A senior administration official said that, taken together, the comments ‘left the perception he had a different foreign policy than the president.’ ”
Esquire article apparent last straw
The Esquire piece, officials told the Times, was the last straw. Read it and you’ll see why. It began:
“If, in the dying light of the Bush administration, we go to war with Iran, it’ll all come down to one man. If we do not go to war with Iran, it’ll come down to the same man. He is that rarest of creatures in the Bush universe: the good cop on Iran, and a man of strategic brilliance. His name is William Fallon, although all of his friends call him “Fox,” which was his fighter-pilot call sign decades ago. …”
The article, by Thomas P.M. Barnett, retained that aura of drama throughout, and Barnett, rather self-importantly, predicted in it that Fallon would be forced to resign.
However, in a Pentagon news conference, the Los Angeles Times reported, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that Fallon wasn’t pressured to resign but, rather, chose to because the situation had become embarrassing: “He told me that, quote, ‘The current embarrassing situation, public perception of differences between my views and administration policy and the distraction this causes from the mission make this the right thing to do,’ unquote.”
There clearly were differences, and Fallon clearly voiced some of them, no matter who decided what. Regarding Iraq, the Guardian of London reported, “The army chief of staff, George Casey, Fallon and other senior military officials have been pressing for more rapid withdrawals of US troops in Iraq because they fear long deployments are degrading the military.” While Fallon said in the Esquire article that “our nation can’t afford to be mesmerized by one problem,” the Guardian wrote, “Bush wants to maintain what was originally described as a temporary ‘surge’ of forces in Iraq. Petraeus … has talked about a “pause” in withdrawals for four to six weeks.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, “Supporters of the administration’s troop buildup have criticized Fallon for pushing for an accelerated reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq. By doing so, they argued, Fallon undermined the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.”
The Times quoted a former senior Pentagon official as saying, “He fought Petraeus every step of the way, creating unrealistic demands and extra work. And in so doing, he was not only undermining Petraeus, he was failing to support the president’s policy.” The Times report said, however, that “Despite the increasingly heated bickering, Fallon’s decision, representing the departure of a combatant commander in wartime, stunned even senior officers.”
Dissension over Iran a factor, too
Iran was indeed a point of dissension as well. “Just as Fallon took over Centcom last spring,” the Esquire article said, “the White House was putting itself on a war footing with Iran. Almost instantly, Fallon began to calmly push back against what he saw as an ill-advised action. Over the course of 2007, Fallon’s statements in the press grew increasingly dismissive of the possibility of war, creating serious friction with the White House.”
The piece continued: “Last December, when the National Intelligence Estimate downgraded the immediate nuclear threat from Iran, it seemed as if Fallon’s caution was justified. But still, well-placed observers now say that it will come as no surprise if Fallon is relieved of his command before his time is up next spring, maybe as early as this summer, in favor of a commander the White House considers to be more pliable. If that were to happen, it may well mean that the president and vice president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year and don’t want a commander standing in their way.”
Experts who spoke to the Washington Post, however, don’t buy that account. Joby Warrick and Michael Abramowitz reported today, “The abrupt resignation of the Pentagon’s top Middle East commander has silenced one of the Bush administration’s fiercest opponents of a unilateral military strike against Iran, yet top administration officials themselves do not see real prospects for military action before the end of President Bush’s term, current and former U.S. officials say.”
Fallon, the Post said, “had irked the White House in recent months by publicly opposing possible military action against Iran. But support for a military strike within the administration has eroded steadily in recent months, and Fallon’s departure will do little to change that, the officials said. Instead, absent an unforeseen precipitating event, the current policy of seeking multilateral diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran as punishment for its nuclear-weapons-related work will continue until Bush leaves office and beyond, according to administration officials and independent experts.”
So perhaps it was indeed the perception that was primarily the problem — that Fallon was actually undermining not the drumbeat for war but the effectiveness of the diplomatic stick being held out over Iran.
Still, the Post story ends rather ominously with a quote from Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Pletka, the Post says, “agreed that it would be ‘overreading’ the situation to say that Fallon’s resignation raises the possibility of a military strike on Iran.
“I don’t think anything is happening right now,” she told the Post, while adding that the key unknown variable is Bush. “I think there is a possibility that the president would feel that he could not leave without trying to address this problem. Nobody knows what the president thinks, and all I can say is to go by what he says — and he has always said he thinks he has to deal with this problem.”
It looks as though we’ll have to wait for Bush’s last months in office to play out before we understand the story of Fallon’s early retirement.
Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.