We’ll begin with Max Boot, writing in today’s Los Angeles Times, on the sudden departure of Admiral William Fallon as CENTCOM Commander. As Mr. Boot observes, Fallon simply “didn’t get it” on the troop surge, pushing for further reductions of U.S. personnel in Iraq—cuts that could endanger recent security gains.
Some particularly salient thoughts:
What Fallon (and Barnett—the profile’s author) don't seem to understand is that Fallon's very public assurances that America has no plans to use force against Iran embolden the mullahs to continue developing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorist groups that are killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is highly improbable that, as the profile implies, the president had any secret plans to bomb Iran that Fallon put a stop to. But there is no doubt that the president wants to maintain pressure on Iran, and that's what Fallon has been undermining.
By irresponsibly taking the option of force off the table, Fallon makes it more likely, not less, that there will ultimately be an armed confrontation with Iran.
Barnett writes further: "Smart guy that he is, Robert Gates, the incoming secretary of Defense, finagled Fallon out of Pacific Command, where he'd been radically making peace with the Chinese, so that he could, among other things, provide a check on the eager-to-please General David Petraeus in Iraq."
It's doubtful that this was why Bush and Gates appointed Fallon. Why would they want to "check" the general charged with winning the Iraq war? But it's telling that Barnett would write this; it may be a reflection of Fallon's own thinking. Even if he wasn't appointed for this reason, Fallon has certainly seen his job as being to "check" Petraeus. The problem is that Fallon is a newcomer to the Middle East and Iraq, while Petraeus has served there for years and is the architect of a strategy that has rescued the United States from the brink of defeat.
With Fallon actively “free-lancing” on Middle East policy, it’s no wonder Mr. Gates lost confidence in him.
Incidentally, the Esquire profile that ended Admiral Fallon’s CENTCOM tour—and his military career—is now available on-line. It is, as Max Boot observes, a fawning portrait that, in some respects, undercuts Fallon’s reputation for strategic brilliance. A few examples:
And Fallon is in no hurry to call Iran's hand on the nuclear question. He is as patient as the White House is impatient, as methodical as President Bush is mercurial, and simply has, as one aide put it, "other bright ideas about the region." Fallon is even more direct: In a part of the world with "five or six pots boiling over, our nation can't afford to be mesmerized by one problem."
And if it comes to war?
"Get serious," the admiral says. "These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them."
Pardon us, admiral, but it would appear that Iran is more than another pot on the strategic stove. Tehran is scrambling to acquire nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems, which could be employed against U.S. forces in the region and Israel. Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, willing to launch another proxy war against the Israelis through Hizballah and Hamas.
And, if it does come to war, Iran also has the ability to shut down the Straight of Hormuz, choking off much of the world’s oil supply. Yes, we would eventually prevail against Iran, but given those variables, the Iranian pot deserves special attention.
Or, how about this little aside, found in the paragraphs that follow:
Fallon sidles up to me during a morning coffee break. "I'm in hot water again," he says.
"The White House?"
The admiral slowly nods his head.
"They say, 'Why are you even meeting with Mubarak?' " This seems to utterly mystify Fallon.
"Why?" he says, shrugging with palms extending outward. "Because it's my job to deal with this region, and it's all anyone wants to talk about right now. People here hear what I'm saying and understand. I don't want to get them too spun up. Washington interprets this as all aimed at them. Instead, it's aimed at governments and media in this region. I'm not talking about the White House." He points to the ground, getting exercised. "This is my center of gravity. This is my job."
Fallon’s willingness to publicly discuss battles with his superiors cuts to the heart of his sudden resignation. Admiral Fallon certainly understood that his comments would eventually appear in print, and knew his bosses wouldn’t be pleased. That suggests a man with little discretion, or someone who had grown weary of the CENTCOM post (less than a year into the assignment) and was looking for a way out. Whatever the reason, those aren’t exactly qualities desired in our military leader for the Middle East.
There’s one more anecdote from Barnett’s profile that suggests Fallon was a bad choice for the CENTCOM job. It actually happened when the Admiral was commander of U.S. Forces in the Pacific.
Early in his tenure at Pacific Command, Fallon let it be known that he was interested in visiting the city of Harbin in the highly controlled and isolated Heilongjiang Military District on China's northern border with Russia. The Chinese were flabbergasted at the request, but when Fallon's command plane took off one afternoon from Mongolia, heading for Harbin without permission, Beijing relented.
Fallon is lucky that the Chinese were in a charitable mood that day. Heading for Harbin without permission—into tightly-controlled airspace—Admiral Fallon risked an international incident (or worse). As Barnett notes, the hastily-arranged visit ended on a high note, with the Chinese commander meeting Fallon and even publicly acknowledging the contributions of his wife.
But was it worth the risk of heading into a military district without initial permission? Fallon would undoubtedly say yes, but it could also be argued that the Harbin jaunt demonstrated flawed judgment. And, despite China’s willingness to arrange a last-minute visit, we wonder if that slight had any long-range repercussions in Sino-U.S. relations. Last Thanksgiving, a U.S. carrier battle group was denied a port visit in China at the last-minute. Makes you wonder if that slight was “payback” for Fallon’s forced entry into Harbin a few years earlier.
ADDENDUM: Fallon's touch-and-go at CENTCOM also raises questions questions about his hiring process. While most of the Bush Administration's recent military appointments in the AOR have been spectacularly successful (think Petraeus and his former deputy, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno), we wonder about the thinking that put Fallon in the chain-of-command, as their superiors. Admiral Fallon was clearly the odd man out, and Mr. Gates deserves some credit for cutting his losses and making a change now. Better luck with the next hire, Mr. Secretary.