It’s a shame that Adm. William “Fox” Fallon has resigned, or been ousted, as commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. But he brought it entirely on himself.
Contrary to the charges of some Democratic lawmakers, this is not another case of an officer’s dissent being stifled. Nor does Fallon’s departure herald a tilt in U.S. policy toward war with Iran.
To the extent that policy disputes are behind the move, they are much more about Iraq.
Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that after the five “surge” brigades left Iraq this July, there would be a “pause” before any further withdrawals would commence. In a Feb. 27 interview with the New York Times, Fallon said this pause would be brief, just long enough to allow “all the dust to settle,” after which the drawdown would resume. Moreover, he said, U.S. strategy would shift—focusing on “supporting, sustaining, advising, training, and mentoring” the Iraqi army, not so much on fighting or providing security ourselves.
In a Slate column the next day, I wondered if Fallon was speaking on behalf of Gates, the administration, or anybody besides himself. I have since learned, from a senior Pentagon official and from a high-ranking Army officer, that he was not. I have also learned that many of Fallon’s statements on policy matters have been similarly unauthorized.
This is nothing like the case of Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff who had his career cut short by Donald Rumsfeld for telling a Senate committee that a few hundred thousand troops would be needed to impose order in postwar Iraq. Shinseki was offering his professional judgment on a strictly military question—how many troops would be needed to perform a mission—in response to a senator’s question. Fallon, by contrast, was challenging the president’s policy—and at his own initiative.
Fallon, who is one of the military’s finest strategic minds, may well be right. Certainly his views match those of many senior officers. But they are contrary to the president’s views, and Fallon knew this. There is much debate within military circles these days over how far, and in what forums, a general or admiral should take his disagreements with political leaders. By most standards, Fallon probably went too far, too publicly. The U.S. Constitution does call for civilian control of the military, and generally, we should be thankful for that.
It is well-known that Fallon has long been at odds with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq (and technically Fallon’s subordinate). I do not know whether it’s true that Fallon once called Petraeus “an ass-kissing little chickenshit.” (Fallon has denied the reports.) I have heard from several sources that the two men dislike each other and that their disagreements have been tense, sometimes fierce. Petraeus is in charge of securing Iraq. Fallon’s purview spans the entire Middle East and South Asia; he considers Iraq a dead end and thinks more resources should be devoted to other crises in the region. Fallon’s departure does signal that Petraeus has won that contest. Some think it’s likely that when Petraeus leaves Iraq at the end of the year, he will take Fallon’s old job. (If so, he may also change his views on some matters; as the old adage about bureaucratic politics has it, you stand where you sit.)
Meanwhile, does Fallon’s exit mean Bush is free to bomb Iran? An adoring profile in this month’s Esquire by Thomas P.M. Barnet, a former professor at the Naval War College, asserts that Fallon is the one man standing between the White House and another Middle East war. * (The Esquire article, which freely quotes Fallon boasting about how much “hot water” he’s in with the White House, is widely regarded as the “last straw” in Fallon’s demise. Secretary Gates, at a press conference Tuesday, called its impact a “cumulative kind of thing.”)
Fallon has publicly expressed extreme skepticism toward the wisdom of a war with Iran. But so have Secretary Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The option of bombing Iran no longer seems to be on the table. But if President Bush were suddenly to put it back on the table, Fallon—or anyone in his position—would have no power to stop it, unless he simply refused to carry out his orders, and nowhere has Fallon said, or suggested, that he was willing to do that.
Correction, March 13, 2008: This piece originally and incorrectly called Thomas P.M. Barnet a professor at the Naval War College. He is no longer at the college. (Return to the corrected sentence.)