By Max Boot
To see why Tuesday’s “retirement” of Navy Adm. William “Fox” Fallon as head of U.S. Central Command is good news, all you have to do is look at the Esquire profile that brought about his downfall.
Its author, Thomas P.M. Barnett, a former professor at the Naval War College, presents a fawning portrait of the admiral — a service he previously performed for Donald Rumsfeld. But evidence of Fallon’s supposed “strategic brilliance” is notably lacking. For example, Barnett notes Fallon’s attempt to banish the phrase “the Long War” (created by his predecessor) because it “signaled a long haul that Fallon simply finds unacceptable,” without offering any hint of how Fallon intends to defeat our enemies overnight. The ideas Fallon proposes — “He wants troop levels in Iraq down now, and he wants the Afghan National Army running the show throughout most of Afghanistan by the end of this year” — most likely would result in security setbacks that would lengthen, not shorten, the struggle.
The picture that emerges of the admiral — “The Man Between War and Peace,” as the overwrought headline has it — is not as flattering as intended. “He’s standing up to the commander in chief, whom he thinks is contemplating a strategically unsound war (with Iran),” Barnett writes. And: “While Admiral Fallon’s boss, President George W. Bush, regularly trash-talks his way to World War III ... 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.”’
Soldiers in harm’s way
What Fallon (and Barnett) 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 U.S. 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 ultimately will 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 might be a reflection of Fallon’s own thinking. Even if he wasn’t appointed for this reason, Fallon certainly has 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.
This is not, however, a strategy that Fallon favored. Not only was Fallon “quietly opposed to a long-term surge in Iraq,” as Barnett notes, but he doesn’t seem to have changed his mind in the past year. He has tried to undermine the surge by pushing for faster troop drawdowns than Petraeus thought prudent. (“He wants troop levels in Iraq down now.”) The president wisely deferred to the man on the spot — Petraeus — thus no doubt leaving Fallon simmering with the sort of anger that came through all too clearly in Esquire.
Like a lot of smart guys (or, at any rate, guys who think they’re smart), Fallon seems to have outsmarted himself. He thinks the war in Iraq is a distraction from formulating “a comprehensive strategy for the Middle East,” according to the profile. The reality is that the only strategy worth a dinar is to win the war in Iraq. If we fail there, all other objectives in the region will be much harder to attain; if we succeed, they will be much easier.
That’s something that Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno — the architects of the surge — understood but that Fallon never seemed to get. Let’s hope that his successor will have a better grasp of the region and of his role.
X Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.