Howlers on Fallon; Where CENTCOM Might Go

by Joshua Foust on 3/13/2008 · 2 comments

Admiral William Fallon, the Commander of CENTCOM—the U.S. military command responsible for Central and South Asia—had resigned early, in a flurry of scandal. There are many reasons to speculate about his departure: a probable policy dispute over how best to handle Iran (despite the self-serving claims by military officials there was none, it was clear Fallon is at odds with the Iran hawks), a rumored severe personality clash with friend-of-the-President David Petraeus, and even questions about his desire to siphon resources away from Iraq to Afghanistan. Debating these are perfectly reasonable, though in the end Fallon’s resignation can only be seen as the honorable action of a man whose many conflicts simply made his continued employment untenable.

Unless you’re 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… [a discussion of Thomas Barnett’s profile of Fallon, the fallout of which Barnett refuses to comment on beyond his “duty as a journalist” or something, follows]

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 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.

Notice the cop out: the President has no plans to bomb Iran, but by Fallon saying bombing Iran would be counterproductive, he is undermining the President’s policy. By this logic, then, advocating for peaceful resolution of conflict leads to war, while suggesting armed conflict (I don’t believe “agitating” applies yet) for resolving disputes leads to peace. In other words, Boot does not believe in a negotiated settlement of compromises, merely coercion with the implied threat of force. Not exactly somebody I trust to tell me who “got it wrong.” Boot continues:

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.

This is deeply disingenuous (and ironic, given the first sentence of that middle ‘graf). Not only was Odierno very slow in realizing the need for reinvigorated counterinsurgency, but there is a grander debate in play. Noting that a full-on exploration of the topic is beyond the scope of this post, there is a very real conflict within the Army about the actual efficacy of the Surge, lead by LTC Gian Gentile. Fallon is not out on a limb in being skeptical of Petraeus’ ability to achieve a long-term “success” in Iraq—however that is defined (a topic with varying “benchmarks” Boot routinely ignores in his writings on that conflict).

Alas, Boot’s complaints against Fallon do not concern the very real reasons his resignation was probably a good idea—most of which relate to his disagreement over current military policy—but for his dissention from the reigning ideology of GEN Petraeus as a mythical god-like figure, and for recognizing the possibility of unachievable “victory” in Iraq. Which is too bad: Boot probably could have bothered to explain how Fallon’s very public dissent placed strain on the civilian-military relationship… but he apparently had other axes to grind.

This is probably not a real loss for our region of choice. It has been widely speculated that Fallon was largely responsible for the growing thaw between Tashkent and Washington and renewed access to Termez. However, Fallon regularly downplayed the growing troubles in Afghanistan in favor of increased attention lavished on Iraq—precisely the misguided attention that has pushed well over half of Afghanistan into the arms of the Taliban.

Fallon did everyone a favor, however, by being cautious about accusing Iran of funneling arms into the country. By avoiding the mistake of accusing Iran of all manner of evil under the sun just to spite us, including supporting their arch-enemy the Taliban, he has demonstrated at least a keener understanding of the issues there than his predecessor, John Abizaid (who could barely be bothered to mention the country publicly).

As for the future of CENTCOM now, it’s up in the air. Far from the Wall Street Journal’s self-serving accusation of back-stabbing generals trying to undermine General Petraeus, Fallon’s resignation reflected a growing chorus of dissent within the military: is the Iraq war a distraction of grander objectives in the Middle East and Central Asia? Certainly, this blogger would argue that position—especially given the drastic disparity in attention, funding, manpower, and equipment between the two.

Whomever his successor turns out to be, it is remarkable that, despite an enormous personnel turnover at the upper reaches of the DoD, the word “Afghanistan” rarely ever gets mentioned as anything beyond an afterthought. All the successor talk surrounds Iraq; there is no discussion whatsoever about who might be able to turn Afghanistan around—it certainly isn’t happening under NATO commander General McNeill.

So drama at CENTCOM: Fabulous. Don’t expect anything to change where we care, however.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Admiral March 13, 2008 at 11:18 pm

Admiral Fallon clearly made serious errors with his remarks about the military option and Iran. Perhaps you addressed this elsewhere on the blog, but I missed it. I would, in fact, distinguish his own insubordination from that of General Douglas MacArthur’s, which, in addition to being far more rank, was more principled.

MacArthur was unarguably a brilliant man. We could argue about other characteristics of his, to be sure, but he knew what he was doing with his insubordination. He knew that he was gambling his career on it. His gamble failed, and with it, the seeds of long-standing foreign policy nightmares in N. Korea and China were sown.

Fallon has had an extraordinary career as well. He seems to be honorable enough, as well. I don’t know enough to say whether he or Abizaid were truly any good at what they did. But it seems grossly negligent, considering that Iran may eventually be a threat, to contradict the administration’s policy of keeping all options on the table. All parties will be better off without him there.

Fallon will have an opportunity to talk openly soon enough.

Joshua Foust March 14, 2008 at 7:24 am

“Admiral”: I believe I made a similar point about Iran when in the first paragraph I said, “in the end Fallon’s resignation can only be seen as the honorable action of a man whose many conflicts simply made his continued employment untenable.” I didn’t specifically address his comments on Iran, but, no matter how much I agree with them, his making them was inappropriate. Then again, resigning was also the right move: if, as a government official, you disagree with a policy, resigning is the appropriate action to take.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say “grossly negligent,” however. At the time I had wondered privately if it was part of a “good cop/bad cop” routine, one Bush has deployed before (like Rumsfeld and Powell). Of course, using a uniformed officer for such a task is highly inappropriate as well.

But, as much as I like him, Fallon is better off outside the Bush administration.

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