Petraeus out of step with US top
brass By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - In sharp contrast to the
lionization of General David Petraeus by members
of the US Congress during his testimony this week,
Petraeus's superior, Admiral William Fallon, chief
of the Central Command (Centcom), derided Petraeus
as a sycophant during their first meeting in
Baghdad in March, according to Pentagon sources
familiar with reports of the meeting.
Fallon told Petraeus that he considered
him to be "an ass-kissing little chickenshit" and
added, "I hate people like that," the sources
That remark reportedly came after Petraeus began
the meeting by making remarks that Fallon
interpreted as trying to ingratiate himself with a
That extraordinarily contentious
start of Fallon's mission to Baghdad led to more
meetings marked by acute tension between the two
commanders. Fallon went on to develop his own
alternative to Petraeus's recommendation for
continued high levels of US troops in Iraq during
The enmity between the two
commanders became public knowledge when the
Washington Post reported on September 9 of intense
conflict within the administration over Iraq. The
story quoted a senior official as saying that
referring to "bad relations" between them is "the
understatement of the century".
derision toward Petraeus reflected both the
Centcom commander's personal distaste for
Petraeus's style of operating and their
fundamental policy differences over Iraq,
according to the sources.
context of Fallon's extraordinarily abrasive
treatment of his subordinate was Petraeus's
agreement in February to serve as front man for
the George W Bush administration's effort to sell
its policy of increasing US troop strength in Iraq
In a highly unusual political
role for an officer who had not yet taken command
of a war, Petraeus was installed in the office of
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in early February
just before the Senate debated Bush's troop
increase. According to a report in the Washington
Post on February 7, senators were then approached
on the floor and invited to McConnell's office to
hear Petraeus make the case for the "surge"
Fallon was strongly opposed to
Petraeus's role as pitchman for the "surge" in
Iraq adopted by Bush in December as putting his
own interests ahead of a sound military posture in
the Middle East and Southwest Asia - the area for
which Fallon's Centcom is responsible.
Centcom commander believed the United States
should be withdrawing troops from Iraq urgently,
largely because he saw greater dangers elsewhere
in the region. "He is very focused on Pakistan,"
said a source familiar with Fallon's thinking,
"and trying to maintain a difficult status quo
By the time Fallon took
command of Centcom in March, Pakistan had become
the main safe haven for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda
to plan and carry out its worldwide operations, as
well as being an extremely unstable state with
both nuclear weapons and the world's largest
population of Islamist extremists.
for continued high troop levels in Iraq would
leave no troops available for other contingencies
in the region.
Fallon was reported by the
New York Times to have been determined to achieve
results "as soon as possible". The notion of a
long war, in contrast, seemed to connote an
extended conflict in which Iraq was but a chapter.
Fallon also expressed great skepticism
about the basic assumption underlying the "surge"
strategy, which was that it could pave the way for
political reconciliation in Iraq. In the lead
story of September 9, the Washington Post quoted a
"senior administration official" as saying that
Fallon had been "saying from Day 1, 'This isn't
One of Fallon's first moves on
taking command of Centcom was to order his
subordinates to avoid the term "long war" - a
phrase Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
had used to describe the fight against terrorism.
Fallon was signaling his unhappiness with
the policy of US occupation of Iraq for an
indeterminate period. Military sources explained
that Fallon was concerned that the concept of a
long war would alienate Middle East publics by
suggesting that US troops would remain in the
During the summer,
according to the September 9 report in the Post,
Fallon began to develop his own plans for
redefining the US mission in Iraq, including a
plan for withdrawal of three-quarters of the US
troop strength by the end of 2009.
conflict between Fallon and Petraeus over Iraq
came to a head early this month. According to the
Post story, Fallon expressed views on Iraq that
were sharply at odds with those of Petraeus in a
three-way conversation with Bush on Iraq the
previous weekend. Petraeus argued for keeping as
many troops in Iraq for as long as possible to
cement any security progress, but Fallon argued
that a strategic withdrawal from Iraq was
necessary to have sufficient forces to deal with
other potential threats in the region.
Fallon's presentation to Bush of the case
against Petraeus's recommendation for keeping
troop levels in Iraq at the highest possible level
just before Petraeus was to go public with his
recommendations was another sign that Petraeus's
role as chief spokesman for the "surge" policy has
created a deep rift between him and the nation's
highest military leaders. Bush presumably would
not have chosen to invite an opponent of the
"surge" policy to make such a presentation without
lobbying by the top brass.
Fallon had a
"visceral distaste" for what he regarded as
Petraeus's sycophantic behavior in general, which
had deeper institutional roots, according to a
military source familiar with his thinking.
Fallon is a veteran of 35 years in the US
Navy, operating in an institutional culture in
which an officer is expected to make enemies in
the process of advancement. "If you are navy
captain and don't have two or three enemies,
you're not doing your job," said the source.
Fallon acquired a reputation for a
willingness to stand up to powerful figures during
his tenure as commander-in-chief of the Pacific
Command from February 2005 to March 2007. He
pushed hard for a conciliatory line toward China,
which put him in conflict with senior military and
civilian officials with a vested interest in
pointing to China as a future rival and threat.
He demonstrated his independence from the
White House when he refused in February to go
along with a proposal to send a third
aircraft-carrier task force to the Persian Gulf.
Fallon questioned the military necessity for the
move, which would have signaled to Iran a
readiness to go to war. Fallon also privately
vowed that there would be no war against Iran on
his watch, implying that he would quit rather than
accept such a policy.
A crucial element of
Petraeus's path of advancement in the US Army, on
the other hand, was through serving as an aide to
senior generals. He was assistant executive
officer to the army chief of staff, General Carl
Vuono, and later executive assistant to the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Henry
Shelton. His experience taught him that
cultivating senior officers is the key to success.
The contrasting styles of the two men
converged with their conflict over Iraq to produce
one of the most intense clashes between US
military leaders in recent history.
Gareth Porter is a historian and
national-security policy analyst. His latest
book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power
and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published
in June 2005.