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Commentary: Why Fallon Resigned

By Martin Walker Admiral William Fallon (epa) The White House has formally denied that U.S. President George W. Bush forced the premature retirement this week of Admiral William Fallon as head of Central Command, after the publication of a magazine article which depicted the admiral as a lone voice against a U.S. military strike on Iran. 

The article in "Esquire," by Thomas Barnett, a former Naval War College professor, was written with Fallon's cooperation but contained no quotation that could be construed as a direct criticism of the Bush administration or its policies in the region. The nearest Fallon has come to a public critique came in an interview to Al-Jazeera television in November, when he said that a "constant drumbeat of conflict" from Washington against Iran was "not helpful and not useful."

In an earlier interview with the "Financial Times," he stressed that a U.S. attack was not "in the offing" and went on to repeat what had been the administration's stated policy all along: "Getting Iranian behavior to change and finding ways to get them to come to their senses and do that is the real objective. Attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice in my book."

"None of this is helped by the continuing stories that just keep going around and around and around that any day now there will be another war, which is just not where we want to go," he added.

While this was in line with stated U.S. policy and far from insubordinate, some hawkish White House officials saw this as undermining the psychological pressure they sought to put on Tehran. "The New York Times" reported "a senior administration official saying that, taken together, Fallon's comments 'left the perception he had a different foreign policy than the president.'"

But the likelihood of a U.S. strike on Iran's purported nuclear sites had never been as high as alarmists suggested, because the scale of Iranian defenses and the number of targets would have required some days of preparatory bombing. This would have caused a political upheaval in the U.S. Congress, among U.S. allies, and in the Middle Eastern region as a whole. The prospects of a strike became even slimmer after the publication in December of a National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran had suspended is nuclear-weapons development program in 2003.

So there are holes in the popular theory that, as "The New York Times" put it, Fallon's "outspoken public statements on Iran and other issues had seemed to put him at odds with the Bush administration." Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, may have been nearer the mark when he said Fallon's departure represented "yet another example that independence and the frank, open airing of experts' views are not welcome in this administration."

That was not quite the impression left by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said: "I don't know whether he was misinterpreted or whether people attributed views to him that were not his views. But clearly it was a concern that he had. We have tried between us to put this misperception behind us, over a period of months and, frankly, just have not been successful in doing so."

Fallon, like any other responsible senior commander, would certainly have warned of the risks involved in attacking Iran, the vulnerability of U.S. troops in the region and of U.S. allies, the likely impact on already soaring oil prices, and the prospect of an escalating conflict at a time when U.S. military reserves were already under strain. Equally, he would dutifully have carried out any orders he was given by his civilian masters, or he would have resigned. If such a controversial order were the reason for his resignation, he has certainly not gone public to say so.

The other theory to explain the resignation is that it concerns not Iran, which appears to be on the White House's back burner, but a dispute over troop levels in Iraq and the urgent need for more troops to cope with the expected spring offensive by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Sources in Congress and in the Pentagon have suggested that Fallon, whose Central Command includes the Afghan and Iraqi theaters, saw the situation improving in Iraq and deteriorating in Afghanistan, and wanting to redeploy troops accordingly.

This was staunchly opposed by the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, whose "surge" of troop reinforcements and new counterinsurgency strategy have sharply reduced the violence and brought some relative stability in that country. There is now considerable speculation that Petraeus will be promoted to replace Fallon as commander-in-chief of Central Command, and replaced as commander in Iraq by Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, who directed the "surge" on the ground.

It is no secret among senior officers that there is little love lost between Fallon and Petraeus, nor that Fallon, from his previous job as commander-in-chief of Pacific Command, saw U.S. relations with China as being far more strategically important in the long run than the Iraq and Afghan engagements. Fallon's only explanation came in his formal resignation statement 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" across the region.

Whatever Fallon's motives, his retirement seems to have caused little lasting controversy in Washington, probably because it was overtaken in the media by the scandal of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer resigning after being found consorting with prostitutes. But the issues at stake, of troop deployments in Iraq and in Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear ambitions, and of America's distraction from the profound strategic changes in Asia and the Pacific, are certain to endure beyond the Bush presidency.

Martin Walker is global affairs columnist for United Press International and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington