WASHINGTON - Admiral William Fallon's request to quit his position as head of
the US Central Command (CENTCOM) and to retire from the military was apparently
the result of a George W Bush administration decision to pressure him to
Announcing the resignation, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he believed it
was "the right thing to do", thus indicating the administration wanted it.
Gates added that it would be "ridiculous" to suggest that Fallon's resignation
signaled that the US planned to go to war with Iran.
Gates said Fallon's position would be filled by his top deputy, Army Lieutenant
General Martin Dempsey, until a permanent replacement was confirmed by the
On Monday, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, asked whether Gates still
had full confidence in Fallon, would only say
that Fallon "still enjoys a working - a good working relationship with the
secretary of defense", and then added, "Admiral Fallon serves at the pleasure
of the president."
The resignation came a few days after the publication of an Esquire magazine
article profiling Fallon in which he was described as being "in hot water" with
the White House and justified public comments departing from the Bush
administration's policy toward Iran. The publicity that followed the article -
titled The Man Between War and Peace - accelerated the pressure on Fallon to
But "Fox" Fallon almost certainly knew that he would be fired when he agreed to
cooperate with the Esquire magazine profile.
On Tuesday, Fallon issued a statement, "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."
The resignation brings to an end a year during which Fallon clashed with the
White House over policy toward Iran and with General David Petraeus and the
White House over whether Iraq should continue to be given priority over
Afghanistan and Pakistan in US policy.
Fallon's greatest concern appears to have been preventing war with Iran. He was
one a group of senior military officers, apparently including most of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, who were alarmed in late 2006 and early 2007 by indications
that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were contemplating a possible attack
Gates chose Fallon to replace General John P Abizaid as CENTCOM chief shortly
after a December 13, 2006 meeting between Bush and the Joint Chiefs at which
Bush reportedly asked their views on a possible strike against Iran.
Colonel W Patrick Lang, a former intelligence officer on the Middle East for
the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Washington Post last week that Fallon
had said privately at the time of his confirmation that an attack on Iran
"isn't going to happen on my watch". When asked how he could avoid such a
conflict, Fallon reportedly responded, "I have options, you know." Lang said he
interpreted that comment as implying Fallon would step down rather than follow
orders to carry out such an attack.
As Inter Press Service (IPS) reported last May, Fallon was also quoted as
saying privately at that time, "There are several of us trying to put the
crazies back in the box." That was an apparent reference to the opposition by
the Joint Chiefs of Staff to an aggressive war against Iran.
Even before assuming his new post at CENTCOM, Fallon expressed strong
opposition in mid-February to a proposal for sending a third US aircraft
carrier to the Persian Gulf, to overlap with two other carriers, according to
knowledgeable sources. The addition of a third carrier was to be part of a
broader strategy then being discussed at the Pentagon to intimidate Iran by
making a series of military moves suggesting preparations for a military
strike. The plan for a third carrier task force in the Gulf was dropped after
Fallon made his views known.
Fallon reportedly made his opposition to a strike against Iran known to the
White House early on in his tenure, and his role as CENTCOM commander would
have made it very difficult for the Bush administration to carry out a strike
against Iran, because he controlled all ground, air and naval military access
to the region.
But Fallon's role in regional diplomacy proved to be an even greater source of
friction with the White House than his position on military policy toward Iran.
Personal relations with military and political leaders in the Middle East had
already become nearly as important as military planning under Fallon's
predecessors at CENTCOM.
Fallon clearly relished his diplomatic role and did not hesitate to express
views on diplomacy that were at odds with those of the administration. Last
summer, as Cheney was maneuvering within the administration to shift US policy
toward an attack on bases in Iran allegedly connected to anti-US Shi'ite forces
in Iraq, Fallon declared in an interview, "We have to figure out a way to come
to an arrangement [with Iran]."
When Sunni Arab regimes in the Middle East became alarmed about the possibility
of a US war with Iran, Fallon made statements on three occasions in September
and November ruling out a US attack on Iran. Those statements contradicted the
Bush administration's policy of keeping the military option "on the table" and
soured relations with the White House.
Fallon also antagonized administration officials by pushing for a faster exit
from Iraq than the White House and Petraeus wanted. Fallon had a
highly-publicized personal and policy clash with Petraeus, for whom he
reportedly expressed a visceral dislike. Sources familiar with reports of his
meetings with Petraeus in Baghdad last March told IPS last spring that he
called him an "ass-kissing little chickenshit" in their first meeting.
Fallon later denied that he had used such language, suggesting to Esquire that
the sources of the report were probably army officers who were indulging in
inter-service rivalry with the navy. In fact, however, the sources of the
report were supporters of Fallon.
Fallon's quarrel with Petraeus was also related to the latter's insistence on
keeping US troops in Iraq, even while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
position in Afghanistan was growing more tenuous. Fallon was strongly committed
to a strategy that gave priority to Afghanistan and Pakistan as the central
security challenges to the United States in the Middle East and Asia.
Fallon made his distaste for a long war in Iraq very clear from the beginning.
He ordered subordinates to stop using the term "long war", which had been
favored by the Bush administration. He was reported to be concerned that the
concept would alienate people across the Middle East by suggesting a US
intention to maintain troops indefinitely in Muslim countries.
Fallon's policy positions made him unpopular among neo-conservative supporters
of the administration. One neo-conservative pundit, military specialist Max
Boot, criticized Fallon last November for his public comment ruling out a
strike against Iran and then suggested in January that Petraeus should replace
the "unimpressive" Fallon at CENTCOM.
Fallon was playing a complex political game at CENTCOM by crossing the White
House on the two most politically sensitive issues in Middle East policy. As a
veteran bureaucratic infighter, he knew that he was politically vulnerable.
Nevertheless, he chose late last year not to lower his profile but to raise it
by cooperating fully with the Esquire article.
IPS has learned that Fallon agreed to sit for celebrity photographer Peter Yang
at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa on December 26 for the Esquire spread, despite
the near-certainty that it would exacerbate his relations with the White House.
That may have been a signal that he already knew that he would not be able to
continue to play the game much longer and was ready to bring his stormy tenure
at CENTCOM to an end.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy
analyst. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance:
Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.