By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
The top U.S. commander in the Middle East, whose views on strategy in the region have put him at odds with the Bush administration, abruptly announced his resignation yesterday, calling reports of such disagreements an untenable "distraction."
Adm. William J. "Fox" Fallon became head of U.S. Central Command last March, putting him ostensibly in charge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he clashed frequently with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, over strategy and troop levels, Pentagon officials said. Though technically Fallon's subordinate, Petraeus has more experience in Iraq and has forged a strong connection with President Bush.
Fallon, 63, had made several comments reflecting disagreement with the administration's stance on Iran, most recently in an Esquire magazine article last week that portrayed him as the only person who might stop Bush from going to war with the Islamic republic.
"Recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the president's policy objectives have become a distraction at a critical time," Fallon said in a statement. Though he denied that any discrepancies exist, he said "it would be best to step aside and allow" Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates "and our military leaders to move beyond this distraction."
Fallon is expected to step down at the end of the month, after barely a year in his position, and just eight days before Petraeus is scheduled to testify before Congress about conditions in Iraq. Military officers said it appeared that it was made clear to Fallon that nobody would object if he stepped down.
"Admiral Fallon reached this difficult decision entirely on his own," Gates said yesterday in an unscheduled news conference. He added: "I believe it was the right thing to do, even though I do not believe there are, in fact, significant differences between his views and administration policy."
The defense secretary also praised Fallon's abilities as a strategist, even though it was the admiral's strategic views that seemed to trouble the administration. "He is enormously talented and very experienced, and he does have a strategic vision that is rare," Gates said.
The Esquire article, written by Thomas P.M. Barnett, a former Naval War College professor, asserted that if Fallon left his job anytime soon, it could signal that Bush intends to go to war with Iran. Asked about that yesterday, Gates called it "just ridiculous."
Several Democrats were quick to accuse the administration of not tolerating dissent. "It's distressing that Admiral Fallon feels he had to step down," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). "President Bush's oft-repeated claim that he follows the advice of his commanders on the ground rings hollow if our commanders don't feel free to disagree with the president." Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) asked whether Fallon's resignation is a reflection that the administration is hostile to "the frank, open airing of experts' views."
A likely successor to Fallon is Petraeus, some defense experts said. The general could be promoted to the Centcom post and replaced in Baghdad by Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who until last month was Petraeus's deputy in Iraq. Odierno, who has been nominated to become Army vice chief of staff, developed a strong working relationship with Petraeus.
Another possible successor mentioned yesterday is Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the head of Special Operations in Iraq. McChrystal recently was nominated to be director of the staff of the Joint Chiefs, a key Pentagon position.
On Iraq, Fallon butted heads with Petraeus over the past year, arguing for a more rapid drawdown of U.S. troops and a swifter transition to Iraqi security forces. Fallon even carried out his own review of the conduct of the war -- a move that surprised many Pentagon officials, in part because Odierno and Petraeus had already revamped U.S. strategy in Iraq and, with Bush's approval, had implemented a buildup of about 30,000 additional troops, moving them off big bases and deploying them among the Iraqi population.
In the Esquire article, Fallon contends that Iraq was consuming excessive U.S. attention. In a part of the world with "five or six pots boiling over," he is quoted as saying, "our nation can't afford to be mesmerized by one problem."
The article was "definitely the straw that broke the camel's back," a retired general said, especially because of its "extraordinarily flip, damning and insulting" tone. He noted that since it appeared last week, it has been the talk of military circles, where it was expected that Fallon would be disciplined.
Fallon, one of the last Vietnam veterans in the U.S. military, was the first Navy officer selected to lead Centcom, a role traditionally granted to Army and Marine generals such as H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Tommy R. Franks and Anthony C. Zinni. One reason he was chosen to replace Army Gen. John P. Abizaid was because the administration -- dealing with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a diplomatic crisis over Iran's nuclear program -- wanted a seasoned officer who could step into the job quickly, without having to learn the ropes of top command, according to a person involved in his selection.
As a veteran of Pacific Command, where he focused on dealing with the rise of China, Fallon was seen as someone who would be comfortable operating at the highest levels of diplomacy and politics. He had told colleagues that he viewed Iran as a problem similar to China -- one that mainly required steady engagement rather than aggressive confrontation. That stance put him at odds with Iran hawks both inside and outside the administration.
Peter D. Feaver, a former staff member of Bush's National Security Council, said that the public nature of Fallon's remarks made it necessary for the admiral to step down. "There is ample room for military leaders to debate administration policy behind closed doors," said Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University. "However, taking such arguments into the media would violate basic democratic norms of civil-military relations."
But Richard Danzig, who served as Navy secretary from 1998 to 2001 and has known Fallon for 15 years, said Fallon's departure will leave a significant hole in a critical region. "Any turnover in Centcom has real costs, because this is an arena in the world, more than others, that depends a lot on relationships and extensive periods of conversation and mutual understanding," he said.
That might prove especially true in Pakistan. Fallon had become a point man for crucial military relations there as the Pentagon implements a stepped-up program to help Pakistani forces deal with Islamic extremism along the border with Afghanistan. In visits to Islamabad in November and January, he cemented ties with Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the new armed forces chief of staff. The administration hopes that Kiyani will keep the military out of Pakistani politics while showing new aggression toward al-Qaeda and Taliban forces along the Afghan border.
Fallon's departure also reflects Gates's management style. During his 15 months at the Pentagon, the defense secretary has shown a willingness to move decisively in cases of internal conflict. A career intelligence officer, he demanded the resignation of Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey last year because of the way he handled the fallout from reports about substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Gates also declined to nominate Gen. Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a second two-year term, amid concerns that a Democratic-controlled Congress would grill Pace on Iraq.
Yesterday, Gates said the perception that Fallon disagreed with the administration's policies was enough to concern Fallon that he may no longer be effective in the region. Gates quoted Fallon as saying that the situation was "embarrassing."
Staff writers Josh White, Karen DeYoung and Peter Baker contributed to this report.