Bush Rolls the Dice

For a mailman’s son who put himself through school working at a Campbell’s Soup factory in hardscrabble Camden, N.J., there must be a special poignancy to knowing that your task over the next two years is to rescue the reputation of a blue-blooded president who’s gotten himself into a bind in the Middle East.

But that’s going to be William (Fox) Fallon’s job as commander of CENTCOM—the first admiral ever to be named to head the traditionally land-oriented regional command, which covers Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, as well as a new trouble spot: Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Fallon’s nomination is part of a flurry of major appointments coming out of the Bush administration ahead of the president’s speech on a new Iraq strategy next week. The reshuffling of Bush’s top command is about much more than Iraq, Pentagon insiders say. It will set the course for the remainder of Bush’s presidency in the entire Mideast.

The appointment of Fallon, a former Navy aviator who commanded an air wing during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, is seen as a signal of strength to recalcitrant Iran. While Bush may not intend to go to war with that nation, if he ever did use a military option, it would have to depend largely on carrier-based air attacks commanded by Fallon. Military planners agree that any land invasion of Iran would require at least four Army divisions. After being bogged down in Iraq for four years, the U.S. military no longer has that capability. The president seemed to drive that point home last month when he ordered a second carrier group to the Arabian Sea. In recent months, Iran has behaved increasingly haughty, rejecting initiatives from Washington and Europe over its nuclear program and its alleged covert efforts to destabilize Iraq by supporting its fellow Shiites there.

At the same time, Fallon, who recently commanded forces in the Pacific, won’t have to spend too much time strategizing about Iraq and Afghanistan, though they’ve been the dominant concern of CENTCOM commanders since 9/11. That’s because Lt. Gen. David Petraeus is set to take over command of multinational forces in Iraq from Gen. George Casey, while Ryan Crocker, an Arabic-speaking expert on the Middle East, will replace Zalmay Khalilzad as ambassador in Baghdad. Petraeus, who recently oversaw the production of the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual, as well as the training of Iraqi forces, has more experience in the problems of Iraq than any other U.S. general. Crocker was an early adviser to the U.S. occupation in Iraq and was effectively fired by Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer for counseling a quick handover to Iraqis. Now his views are back in fashion. He has also spent the past two years as ambassador to Pakistan, where he has dealt with the cross-pollination of jihadist forces between Central Asia and the Mideast. And NATO recently took over security in Afghanistan.

For George W. Bush, all these moves—and his expected announcement next week of a “surge” of thousands of new U.S. troops and resources into Iraq—may well be his final roll of the dice in getting the Mideast right. “This is, ‘We’re gonna make one real final push here. And we’ve got to get the policy and people in place to do it',” says Antony Blinken, staff director for Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden.

Few people question the caliber of the new appointees. Among other moves, General Casey, who is to be replaced by Petraeus, will become Army chief of staff. And Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, a highly regarded ground commander charged with training Iraqi military and police, is expected to be named Fallon’s deputy, according to several Pentagon sources who declined to be identified discussing personnel matters. “Fox Fallon is exceptionally gifted. With Dave Petraeus handling Iraq and Afghanistan now largely under NATO, Admiral Fallon will have time to focus on Iran and the gulf,” says Harlan Ullman, a defense expert with the Center for Naval Analyses. “If America ever has to use force to halt Iran's nuclear-weapons program, Fox Fallon as a carrier warfare expert has just the skill sets that campaign would need."

But many Bush critics, especially among the new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill, think that throwing good people after bad policy is not going to help. “The surge is a bad idea in and of itself because we tried it before,” says Blinken, referring to the failed Operation Forward Together, which involved the movement of some 8,000 U.S. troops into Baghdad last fall. “The same old thing is going to happen.” Blinken also expressed skepticism that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was strong or determined enough to meet the “benchmarks” for performance that Bush is expected to announce.