The Cost of Fallon's Candor

The surprise is not that Adm. William (Fox) Fallon has resigned as commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East (CINCCENT). The surprise is that he's lasted as long as he has.

In a way it's a backhanded compliment to Fallon's abilities. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had for months defended him against the increasing irritation of the White House over Fallon's interventions on policy, especially his public statements about Iran. One senior military officer in the Pentagon, who declined to be identified talking about sensitive personnel matters, said, "Gates saved Fallon's ass last year, but he didn't even try this time. Fallon was just way out of line."

The immediate cause of Fallon's resignation is a profile of him in the latest issue of Esquire magazine titled "The Man Between War and Peace." Author Thomas Barnett sets up Fallon as the man standing against what it asserts is the Bush administration's determination to go to war with Iran. The tone of the article alone might have been enough to sink Fallon. One example: "So while Admiral Fallon's boss, President George W. Bush, regularly trash-talks his way to World War III and his administration casually casts Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as this century's Hitler … it's left to Fallon—and apparently Fallon alone—to argue that, as he told Al Jazeera last fall: 'This constant drumbeat of conflict … is not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for. We ought to try to do our utmost to create different conditions'."

Barnett asks, "How does Fallon get away with so brazenly challenging his commander in chief? The answer is that he might not get away with it for much longer … the President may have had enough."

Indeed. Barnett's comments might have been dismissed as journalistic hyperventilating but for the fact that it was clear the author, in preparing the piece, had had intimate access to Fallon—travelling with him in the region toward the end of last year and evidently talking to him on multiple occasions. So when Barnett writes that "he's standing up to the commander in chief, who he thinks is contemplating a strategically unsound war," the sentence has an authoritative ring.

When word of the article's impending publication surfaced last week, the senior official says, there were "contacts" between the White House and the Pentagon over Fallon's remarks. This source declined to specify whether Secretary Gates had spoken with President Bush. Gates, in announcing Fallon's resignation, certainly suggested he had. When asked point blank whether he'd consulted with Bush, Gates zigzagged: "I had … The President has made clear all along that these matters are to be handled strictly within the Department of Defense …" The reality is that Gates didn't need White House prodding to grasp that Fallon had to go. And Fallon—after an initial claim that the article misquoted him—apparently came to the same conclusion.

Since last fall Fallon has been publicly campaigning against any notion of a war with Iran. In September he offered Al Jazeera a sit-down interview during which he made the comments that Barnett quotes. In November, on a visit to Cairo, Fallon allowed it to be reported that in his meeting with President Hosni Mubarak he had "ruled out a possible strike against Iran and said Washington was mulling nonmilitary options instead." (On the eve of that trip to the region, Fallon had told the Financial Times, "Another war is just not where we want to go.") In announcing his resignation he acknowledged that he and the president were not on the same page. "Recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the President's policy objectives have become a distraction," he said in a prepared statement. Accepting Fallon's resignation, Gates said, "I believe it was the right thing to do." The perception of a policy gulf between Fallon and the civilian leadership had reached the point where it could no longer be ignored. "You know," Gates said, "part of the problem here is … that we have tried between us to put this misperception behind us over a period of months and, frankly, just have not been successful in doing so." The defense secretary later added, "I think this is a cumulative kind of thing"—a very Gatesian way of not quite saying "because Admiral Fallon just won't leave the subject alone." But that's the truth.

Fallon is far from the only senior military officer to have serious doubts about the wisdom of U.S. strikes against Iran. Adm. Michael Mullen, during the Senate hearing on his nomination as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced similar doubts. But Pentagon dictates require the addition of a phrase something like "of course, no options are off the table." Say that, and you're safely within the bounds of the administration's declared policy on Iran. Fallon's mistake was that he didn't use that caveat.

Some of Fallon's friends suspect he may have written the script just the way he wanted. Defense analyst and commentator Harlan Ullman, himself a former naval officer and a longtime friend and admirer of Fallon's, says, "I suspect he'd had enough. He knew where this administration is heading. He knew he was right to oppose it. So what do you do? At a certain point you have to get out."

Does Fallon's departure signal that the administration is in fact contemplating imminent war with Iran? Gates dismissed the idea outright. "The notion that this decision portends anything in terms of a change in Iran policy is … ridiculous."

Ironically, Fallon's most severe differences with the administration have been been over not Iran but Iraq. Fallon believes Iraq is absorbing too much of the U.S. military—resulting in a dangerous neglect of Afghanistan, in his view. His stance on Iraq tracks that of moderate Democrats who believe only a clear sense of limits on U.S. troop commitments will spur Iraqi politicians to pull together and get the hard work of rebuilding their nation done. So, in internal administration discussions, Fallon has opposed the "surge" and, over the past few weeks, called for a much faster drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq than the commander there, Gen. David Petraeus, wanted. Formally, Fallon was Petraeus's boss. In reality Petraeus had a hotline to Washington. And on the question of the scale and pace of any drawdown this spring, President Bush heard out both commanders and then decided to back Petraeus.

Fallon's departure—he leaves on March 31—will scarcely be a quiet one. Inevitably, the Democrats will call him to testify on Capitol Hill. As a retired officer, Fallon—so long as he doesn't blab about classified material—will be free to say what he wants. But as an active-duty four-star, Fallon forgot the fundamental rule: the military can argue as vigorously as it likes while policy is being made, but once the civilian leadership has laid down a policy, the role of the commander is to salute and carry it out. Or, as Fallon has belatedly done, resign.