Fallon Walks the Plank

For those who might still be wondering whether Admiral William J. Fallon fell or was pushed, the short answer is that he was pushed.
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For those who might still be wondering whether Admiral William J. Fallon fell or was pushed, the short answer is that he was pushed. The abrupt resignation of Fallon as chief of Central Command last Tuesday was a political maneuver to avoid having to fire him. When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of Great Britain, cabinet members who were not fully on board with her policies were described as "wets." By that standard, Fallon was most definitely a wet as he had strong views on the appropriate circumstances for the use of force in the Middle East. As an outspoken man who does not suffer fools gladly, he crossed swords with the White House more than once and was reported to be on extremely unfriendly terms with the top Army commander in Iraq General David Petraeus, whom he had reportedly disparaged as an "ass-kissing little chickenshit."

Fallon's appointment in March 2007 had originally raised some concerns that war was imminent as he is an expert in aircraft carrier operations and it was suggested that he might be taking command to plan an air assault against Iran. Instead, Fallon proved to be the ultimate realist, understanding the vulnerability of American forces in the Persian Gulf region and resisting demands for a more bellicose posture. He also reportedly does not believe that Iraq can be stabilized with a cosmetic infusion of American troops, the so-called surge policy, and in fact wanted more soldiers removed more quickly. He has also been openly critical of the patchwork and uncoordinated efforts to shore up the deteriorating United States strategic relationships in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As is often the case, the neo-conservative punditry assisted in bringing down Fallon. Their spokesmen in the media had long since turned on him because of his interest in launching negotiations rather than cruise missiles against Iran. Last week Max Boot wrote "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...." Using a classic neocon argument, Boot assumes something to be true and then draws a conclusion. That Iranian supported terrorist groups are killing American soldiers in Iraq and that Iran is continuing to develop nuclear weapons cannot be demonstrated in any objective way and there is, in fact, considerable evidence to the contrary. But that would be damaging to Boot's argument.

Fallon has undeniably made a number of comments about the need to negotiate a political solution to the problems with Iran rather than using force, but his comments are not wildly out of line with those made both by the Secretary of Defense and the president, both of whom insist that the U.S. wants to negotiate. They are also roughly similar to comments by his two predecessors at Centcom, Generals Abizaid and Zinni. The most recent airing of Fallon's views was in an article that appeared in Esquire magazine two weeks ago entitled "The Man Between War and Peace." The article, which stated that the admiral had been single-handedly resisting the push for war, was written with the cooperation of Fallon, though he subsequently denied having said much that was attributed to him. The admiral, interviewed by al-Jazeera several months ago, also said that the "constant drumbeat of conflict" from Washington was not helpful. There have been reports that Fallon also has told some other senior military officers that he would resign if ordered to attack Iran.

The White House has often asserted that it likes open debate of issues and prefers to have generals and admirals who speak their minds, but that is a lie. The list of senior officers who have been replaced by the administration is a long one and nearly all of the changes have come about due to disagreements on policy, not because of incompetence or malfeasance. The White House decided that Fallon was running his own foreign policy and President Bush made the decision to fire him after the Esquire piece appeared, though the intention was to wait a month or so to let him retire quietly, permitting the administration to deny that any disagreement over Iran policy had been the issue.

Vice President Dick Cheney then intervened to move the resignation process forward, arguing that Fallon was a distraction for the Cheney trip to the Middle East, which started on Sunday March 16th. The vice president intended to discuss Iran with Saudi Arabia and other allies in an attempt to harden the line against the Mullahs, but the continued presence of Fallon suggesting that a softer line might be pursued would make Cheney's task much more difficult. Cheney wanted Fallon out immediately, to send the message that there is only one Iran policy and that Cheney is running it. Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agreed and Fallon was made to walk the plank. The administration hopes that he will enter into his retirement quietly and accept some highly lucrative board memberships with defense contractors that will induce him to continue to keep his mouth shut about Bush policy in the Middle East.

Dick Cheney will now be free to discuss a hard line about Iran without contradiction, though the real purpose of his trip is to convince the Saudis to pump more oil to bring down gas prices. The White House is concerned that $4 a gallon gas will be disastrous for Republican prospects in the upcoming elections as administration policies that have weakened the dollar will rightly be blamed. It is unlikely that Cheney will get much relief from the Saudis, who are moving aggressively to cut their own deal with Iran and are also facing strong resistance from the rest of OPEC to any production increases.

For those who are concerned about the likelihood of war with Iran because of the Fallon resignation, Washington sources believe that little has changed. The U.S. is not capable of attacking anyone at the moment except by bombing, which would solve little and which would open the door to retaliation against U.S. interests worldwide. Barring a provocative move by the Israelis that will draw the U.S. in or a covert operation that unfortunately escalates, the danger of a new war directed against Iran is low. How to deal with the many still festering issues that the Bush administration has left unresolved in the Middle East will be on the watch of the next president, whoever he or she will be.

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