By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007
When Adm. William J. Fallon -- the nominee to command U.S. forces in the Middle East -- was tasked with resuscitating military ties with China, he took on the challenge with characteristic gusto.
The veteran fighter pilot from New Jersey pushed beyond the standard banquets with Chinese generals to meet younger officers and tour military bases, eventually talking his way into the cockpit of an advanced Chinese FB-7 warplane.
An avid jogger, Fallon, 62, also bypassed conventional sightseeing, setting off for a run through Beijing that surprised his hosts and forced plainclothes agents in suits and leather shoes to tag-team to keep up.
Fallon's path-breaking pursuit of U.S. strategic goals -- shown over the past two years in his dealings with China, Japan, Indonesia and 40 other Asian states as head of the Pacific Command -- is a major factor behind his nomination to replace Gen. John P. Abizaid at the Central Command, Pentagon officials say.
"Fox Fallon is one of the best strategic thinkers in uniform today and his reputation for innovation is without peer," according to a statement this month from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recommending Fallon, whose Navy aviator call-sign "Silver Fox" stemmed from his prematurely gray hair.
As the United States sends more troops, warships and aircraft into the Middle East, Fallon would play a critical role diplomatically and militarily in trying to prevent the "regional conflagration" that Gates has warned could ignite if Iraq erupts into full-scale civil war -- and, in particular, to counter any aggression by Iran.
Fallon's selection as the first Navy officer to head the Central Command comes as the United States dispatches a second carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, to the Persian Gulf for the first time since 2003. Dispatching the carrier strike group, which joins the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, "is an important way to demonstrate U.S. commitment and strength," a senior Pentagon official said last week.
Fallon, who flew F-14 jets in strike missions off the deck of a carrier during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, understands the long-standing role of the Navy in maintaining the flow of Middle Eastern oil through the Strait of Hormuz, officials said.
"Iran is the most powerful military force in the region" apart from the United States, and it has a navy capable of blocking the strait, Abizaid said in September. Iran also has a "substantial" missile force, an army that is training for guerrilla-style attacks, and a "robust terrorist surrogate arm," he said.
Fallon's selection for a command traditionally headed by an Army or Marine Corps general makes sense militarily, Pentagon officials said, because most of the moving pieces in the region are ships and aircraft, in contrast to the troops engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fallon is likely to focus less on ground-war tactics in Iraq than did Abizaid, who became commander in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, they said.
"He'll be flying at 30,000 feet, not launching company patrols by the Army," said Frances D. Cook, a former ambassador in the Persian Gulf region and a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses who has worked with Fallon.
With a seasoned Army general in Baghdad, Fallon would focus more broadly on the region. "He's not going to be expected to give Dave Petraeus advice on how to do a sweep of Fallujah. He'll be focused on building relations in the region as he did in the Pacific," said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, executive director of the Navy League. Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus has been named to replace Gen. George W. Casey Jr. as the top U.S. commander for Iraq in a planned turnover of military leaders in the region.
Indeed, with Gates calling a U.S. military confrontation with Iran a "last resort," analysts said that Fallon's diplomatic skills are likely to be more important than his war-fighting experience when he assumes the Central Command post, his fourth as a four-star commander. "With Iran and the Middle East, you need to establish relations that will not lead to combat. Fallon will be the first to tell you that," said Pietropaoli, who worked under Fallon when Fallon was vice chief of naval operations from 2000 to 2003.
"You are looking for an officer who can pull together the whole political, military and diplomatic mission. . . . He spent a lot of time working sensitive diplomatic issues," said retired Adm. Thomas Fargo, a former chief of the Pacific Command. Fargo and others recalled Fallon's high-profile apology to the families of Japanese who were killed when their vessel, Ehime Maru, was accidentally sunk by a Navy submarine in early 2001.
Confident but not imperious, Fallon combines a tough, unvarnished style with a light touch and a keen interest in other cultures, which makes him highly effective, current and former officials who know him say. "He doesn't wear his rank the way some people do," said Ambassador Derek Shearer, the former U.S. envoy to Finland who began working with Fallon in 1996 when Fallon commanded a battle group during NATO operations in Bosnia.
Fallon, a world history buff, told The Washington Post through a spokesman that he recently finished reading the book "No God but God," by Iranian author Reza Aslan, an advocate of ending religious conflicts between East and West. Fallon had served in the Middle East before, on a joint task force in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and he recently traveled to Iraq to meet with some of the thousands of U.S. troops deployed there from the Pacific Command.