Top U.S. Commander in Mideast to Retire Early
By THOM SHANKER and DAVID STOUT, New York Times March 11, 2008
WASHINGTON — Adm. William J. Fallon, the top American commander in the Middle East whose views on Iran and other issues have seemed to put him at odds with the Bush administration, is retiring early, the Pentagon said Tuesday afternoon.
The retirement of Admiral Fallon, 63, who only a year ago became the first Navy man to be named the commander of the United States Central Command, was announced by his civilian boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who said that he accepted the admiral’s request to retire “with reluctance and regret.”
President Bush said Admiral Fallon had served his country with “honor, determination and commitment” and deserved “considerable credit” for the progress in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But despite the warm words from Mr. Bush and Mr. Gates, there was no question that the admiral’s premature departure stemmed from a public appearance of policy differences with the administration, and with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq.
Mr. Gates acknowledged as much when he said that Admiral Fallon, in asking permission on Tuesday morning to retire, had expressed concerns that the controversy over his views were becoming “a distraction.” But the secretary labeled as “ridiculous” any speculation that the admiral’s retirement portends a more bellicose American approach toward Iran.
Admiral Fallon had rankled senior officials of the Bush administration with outspoken comments on such issues as dealing with Iran and on setting the pace of troop reductions from Iraq — even though his comments were well within the range of views expressed by Mr. Gates.
Officials said the last straw, however, came in an article in Esquire magazine by Thomas P. M. Barnett, a respected military analyst, that profiled Admiral Fallon under the headline, “The Man Between War and Peace.” The article highlighted comments Admiral Fallon made to the Arab television station Al Jazeera last fall, in which he said that a “constant drumbeat of conflict” from Washington that was directed at Iran and Iraq was “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.”
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, was asked at a news briefing on Monday to comment on the controversy. Mr. Morrell said Mr. Gates and the admiral maintained a good working relationship, but that, like all military commanders, Admiral Fallon served at the pleasure of the president.
Mr. Gates said on Tuesday that Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey would take Admiral Fallon’s place until a permanent replacement is nominated and confirmed by the Senate.
The Esquire article quotes Admiral Fallon as urging a “combination of strength and willingness to engage.”
Readers of the Esquire article who are among the admiral’s boosters said they did not believe on reading that piece that Admiral Fallon himself had made comments that could be viewed as insubordinate to the president.
But the cast of the lengthy piece put the admiral at odds with the White House.
“If, in the dying light of the Bush administration, we go to war with Iran, it’ll all come down to one man,” the article begins. “If we do not go to war with Iran, it’ll come down to the same man.”
Both Mr. Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have maintained an unwavering public line that disagreements with Iran should be resolved diplomatically, and that any military option remained only the last resort.
“I think that the secretary has made clear and I think Admiral Fallon has made clear that the first priority of this administration is to deal with our problems with Iran in a diplomatic fashion,” Mr. Morrell said Monday. “That is our first hope. That is our first effort. However, we have all made clear, time and time again, that nothing, no avenue is off the table.”
Democrats pounced on the retirement announcement, with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, calling it “yet another example that independence and the frank, open airing of experts’ views are not welcomes in this administration.”
Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he was sorry to see the admiral go. “Admiral Fallon is well known for his excellent diplomatic skills in representing the United States overseas,” Mr. Levin said. “I can only hope that the decision to retire was his own.” And Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who often differs with the administration on foreign-policy issues, said that “the credibility which Admiral Fallon brought to the issues he was involved in will be sorely missed.”
When Admiral Fallon was nominated in January of 2007 to be commander of American military forces across a region where they are engaged in two ground wars, it struck many analysts as odd. When he was confirmed for the post, he replaced Gen. John Abizaid as the top officer of Central Command.
At the time, a range of senior Pentagon civilians and military officers said Mr. Gates had recommended that Admiral Fallon move from his post as commander of American forces in the Pacific to bring a new strategic view — as well as maritime experience — to the Middle East.
The admiral began service through a commission from the Navy’s Reserve Officer Training Program, as opposed to the more prestigious Naval Academy. He later graduated from the Naval War College and the National War College, and earned a master’s degree in international studies from Old Dominion University.
Although known for being tough on his subordinates, Admiral Fallon also developed a reputation for nuanced diplomatic negotiations with friendly nations — and some with whom the United States has more prickly ties. Earlier in his career, when he was the American military commander in the Pacific, he annoyed conservatives by taking what they considered an overly conciliatory stance toward China.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican candidate for president, praised the admiral. “As a fellow Naval aviator, I know the sacrifices he made during his long and distinguished career,” the senator said. “Under Admiral Fallon’s leadership at Central Command, the situation in Iraq has improved dramatically. All Americans should be grateful for Admiral Fallon’s service, and respect his decision to retire. I am confident President Bush will act promptly to select the right person to lead Central Command at this critical juncture.”
Admiral William Fallon quits over Iran policy - Times