Adm. Fallon, top U.S. commander in Middle East, retiring early

The Navy man has been credited as the firewall between the administration and war with Iran, but his influence was felt in other ways as well.


Alex Koppelman
March 12, 2008 1:30AM (UTC)

Adm. William Fallon, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, has decided to retire early. The move was announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates Tuesday.

Fallon was recently the subject of a profile in Esquire that depicted him as at odds with the Bush administration, especially over the subject of Iran. At the end of the Esquire piece, author Thomas P.M. Barnett wrote, "Time will tell whether being reasonable will cost Admiral William Fallon his command." In a statement, Fallon said public perception of differences of opinion between him and his civilian bosses was responsible for his decision. "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 in the CENTCOM region," Fallon said in a statement.

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"And although I don't believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy in the Central Command Area of Responsibility, the simple perception that there is makes it difficult for me to effectively serve America's interests there."

In the wake of the announcement, many observers have focused on the potential implications for administration policy toward Iran, especially given Barnett's comments in Esquire:

If, in the dying light of the Bush administration, we go to war with Iran, it'll all come down to one man. If we do not go to war with Iran, it'll come down to the same man ...

Well-placed observers now say that it will come as no surprise if Fallon is relieved of his command before his time is up next spring, maybe as early as this summer, in favor of a commander the White House considers to be more pliable. If that were to happen, it may well mean that the president and vice-president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year and don't want a commander standing in their way.

But amid the focus on Iran, other important views Fallon reportedly held -- including differences with the administration and its favored son, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq -- are being obscured. Fallon was apparently a strong voice among those in the Pentagon worried about the stress the ongoing war in Iraq is putting on the military, its soldiers and its ability to respond to a fresh crisis. (According to recent congressional testimony by Rand Beers, who served as special assistant to the president and senior director for combating terrorism in the first term of the Bush administration before going on to advise Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign and head the national security network, "Two-thirds of the Army -- virtually all of the active Army's combat brigades not currently deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan -- are rated 'not combat ready.'")

Fallon had reportedly argued with Petraeus over the issue of how many U.S. troops should remain in Iraq and for how long, citing other threats as a reason to lower troop levels in Iraq and accept an elevated level of risk there. In September, the Washington Post reported:

Fallon, who took command of Centcom in March, worried that Iraq was undermining the military's ability to confront other threats, such as Iran. "When he took over, the reality hit him that he had to deal with Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and a whole bunch of other stuff besides Iraq," said a top military officer.

Fallon was also derisive of Iraqi leaders' intentions and competence, and dubious about the surge. "He's been saying from Day One, 'This isn't working,'" said a senior administration official. And Fallon signaled his departure from Bush by ordering subordinates to avoid the term "long war" -- a phrase the president used to describe the fight against terrorism.

Fallon will be replaced by his deputy, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, until a permanent successor is chosen.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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