The commander in charge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is stepping down.
U.S. Navy Admiral William Fallon, the commander of U.S. Central Command for the past year, announced his retirement today, amid reports that he opposed Bush Administration policies toward Iran.
Fallon, who has served on active duty since 1967, was the subject of a recent profile in Esquire magazine entitled "The Man Between War and Peace." It depicted the CENTCOM commander as a lone voice opposed to military action against Iran's nuclear program.
While administration critics were quick to note the apparent policy split between Fallon and his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, both the Admiral and Mr. Gates downplayed the differences. As the AP reports:
Gates said repeatedly that he believed talk of Fallon opposing Bush on Iran was mistaken.
"I don't think that there really were differences at all," Gates said, adding that Fallon was not pressured to leave.
"He told me that, quote, 'The current embarrassing situation, public perception of differences between my views and administration policy, and the distraction this causes from the mission make this the right thing to do,' unquote," Gates told reporters.
But in the end, the mere perception of a split between the Pentagon and the CENTCOM commander was enough to force Fallon's retirement. The recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) virtually eliminated any prospect for U.S. military action against Iran's nuclear facilities; Public differences between Mr. Gates and the CENTCOM leader would make it even more difficult to marshal public support for future strikes.
Obviously, Admiral Fallon's sin wasn't his disagreement with Mr. Gates. Every SecDef--including Donald Rumsfeld--tolerates (read: expects) a certain degree of debate among his military advisers. But taking those arguments public is simply unacceptable. That's why CENTCOM will have a new commander by the end of this month.
And that raises a couple of questions. Namely, why did Fallon agree to the interview? Scan a few past issues, and you'll discover that Esquire is hardly a fan of the U.S. military. If the Admiral was wishing to air his views, he might have used a more tempered approach--and a different forum.
On that same note, where was Admiral Fallon's public affairs advisor? Every combatant commander has a Colonel or Captain (Navy O-6) who heads the organization's P.A. staff. It would be interesting to know what counsel Fallon's public affairs chief offered when Esquire came calling. The final decision rests with the CINC, but if Fallon was told to grant the interview, he received poor advice from his staff.
With today's announcement, speculation about possible successors began immediately. Some of the names being tossed about include Army Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, a former senior commander in Iraq (who serves as Gates' top military assistant), and Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a former leader of U.S. special operations in the Middle East. Another possible nominee is CENTCOM's Vice-Commander, another Army three-star who has been selected for promotion, and reassignment as commander of U.S. forces in Europe.
Two dark horse candidates are the men responsible for the success of the troop surge in Iraq, General David Petraeus and his former deputy, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno. The White House and the Pentagon would be reluctant to transfer Petraeus, who has said that recent gains in Iraq are "fragile." But, through the miracle of modern communications (and a large Baghdad staff), Petraeus could keep an eye on Iraq, while simultaneously managing the larger CENTCOM portfolio.
Putting Odierno in charge would be more problematic. He's already slated for promotion (and reassignment as the Army's Vice Chief of Staff). Beyond that, putting him at CENTCOM would put him (nominally) in charge of General Petraeus, his former subordinate.
If the President looks toward those two men for the CENTCOM job, the most likely combination would give Petraeus the CINC job, with Odierno returning once again to Iraq, to become our top military commander in that country. Someone else could fill the Vice Chief position; with Fallon's departure, filling the CENTCOM job--and preserving our gains in Iraq--will take top priority.