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A Centcom Chief Who Spoke His Mind

Adm. William Fallon in Mosul, Iraq, last fall.
Adm. William Fallon in Mosul, Iraq, last fall. (By Brian Murphy -- Associated Press)
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By David Ignatius
Thursday, March 13, 2008

The first thing that many of Adm. William Fallon's colleagues note about him is that he's a Navy officer. By that, they mean he has the stubborn self-confidence, some would say arrogance, that is part of command at sea. He knows how to wear his dress whites and receive a snappy salute -- and he likes telling people off when he thinks they're wrong.

Those headstrong qualities were part of why Fallon was chosen to run Central Command, arguably the most important senior post in the U.S. military today.

And they explain why Fallon finally crashed and burned Tuesday, tendering his resignation after his blunt comments to an Esquire magazine writer had gotten him into one too many conflicts with the White House and the military brass.

Stories about Fallon's resignation focused mostly on his rejection of administration saber-rattling on Iran. "I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for," he told al-Jazeera last fall when war fever was high. But there's less of a gap between Fallon and the administration on Iran than those comments suggested. Top administration officials have made clear for months that they know there isn't a good U.S. military option against Iran.

Fallon's problems were less dramatic -- but they go to the heart of what America should want from its senior military leaders. After what many viewed as the overly deferential style of the two previous chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the White House decided to go for something different in a senior commander -- a guy with a mouth that could peel the paint off the walls.

I have traveled with Fallon several times since he became Centcom commander and have talked at length with him, so perhaps I can offer a glimpse into the flap over his premature retirement. Fallon's early friction was with Gen. David Petraeus, whom President Bush had trusted with the implementation of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. Their turf war was ironic because Petraeus had supported Fallon for the job. But the new Centcom chief bristled at his nominal subordinate's close relationship with the White House, and it made for an awkward chain of command.

The tension was evident in May when I traveled to Baghdad with Fallon. He brought me into all his meetings with Iraqi officials, despite objections from some Green Zone politicos. Those fractious discussions reinforced Fallon's worry that the vaunted troop surge, while clearly improving Iraqi security, wasn't creating the space for national political reconciliation.

In a May 15 piece from Baghdad, I quoted an upbeat Petraeus: "How long does reconciliation take? That's the long pole in the tent." I asked Fallon if he had an assessment of his own, and he said, specifically rebutting Petraeus: "We're chipping away at the problem. But we don't have the time to chip away. Reconciliation isn't likely in the time we have available, but some form of accommodation is a must."

By last fall, it was clear to Fallon that the key issue was the pace of U.S. withdrawal. If the surge strategy was "conditions-based," and the surge was going well, Fallon wondered, why weren't we pressing the advantage and moving for a faster timetable?

After we discussed this issue at the Pentagon, I quoted Fallon in an Oct. 21 column saying he was pushing Petraeus on "whether there is a way to take more of the support force out" on a quicker timetable. I suspected that Fallon was blunt because he knew that Defense Secretary Robert Gates (if not the White House) shared his impatience.

Fallon's willingness to encourage a public debate, even when it got him in hot water, continued when I traveled with him for a week in January. He stopped first in Rawalpindi on Jan. 22 to see the new chief of staff of Pakistan's army, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, clearly the crucial personality in maintaining stability in that country after the political demise of Pervez Musharraf. Fallon tried to arrange for me to accompany him to the meeting, and when that proved impossible, he gave me a detailed read-out, on the record, which appeared in print Jan. 24.

The Pentagon brass and the White House were in a dither about the Kiyani comments, but Fallon didn't mind. His conversation had shown that the new Pakistani commander was working to rebuild the army's professionalism and stop al-Qaeda in the tribal areas, and he thought the public should know that.

A final Fallon indiscretion was talking while we were in Iraq about whether there should be a pause in the withdrawal of U.S. troops this summer, as Petraeus and Bush wanted. He favored a pause, but not one so lengthy that it obscured the message to Iraqis and Americans that U.S. military forces were on their way out -- slowly and steadily, but surely.

I understand the White House's desire for an orderly chain of command and the need for military officers to trust each other's discretion. But in the case of Fallon, I see a lot of good that came from having a headstrong blowtorch of a man speaking truth to power.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.


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