The Man Who'll Lead the Surge

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Tang Chhin Sothy /AFP / Getty

Admiral William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh in July, 2006.

It was early May 2005, and alarm bells in Washington's media echo chamber were ringing. A leaked Pentagon report had warned that the strain of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could crimp the Defense Department's ability to respond quickly to other conflicts, and pundits were fretting that China and North Korea could exploit the vulnerability. But flying through Asia in his Air Force Boeing 737, Admiral William Fallon, the man who had taken over the U.S. Pacific Command just two months earlier, wasn't ruffled. His command — with 300,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines — still outclassed the force Beijing was building up, he insisted. And together with a growing South Korean army, it could quickly overpower any kind of attack by Pyongyang's army. "I'm not losing too much sleep right now," the admiral told TIME, which accompanied him on the trip.

That kind of calm confidence, seasoned by nearly 40 years in the Navy, has made quite an impression on Fallon's bosses — particularly President George W. Bush, who's looking for a steady military hand to help him turn around the mess in Iraq. This week Bush will announce he wants "Fox" Fallon ("Fox" comes from his call sign as a Naval aviator) to replace Gen. John Abizaid as head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Iraq war and the entire volatile Middle East.

Fallon may be widely respected, but within military circles, his selection is controversial. The top Central Command job has always gone to an Army or Marine general for the simple reason that their ground forces would typically bear the brunt of any war in the theater. A bombadier-navigator in Vietnam, Fallon, 62, has no operational experience commanding ground troops or battling the kind of insurgency that grips Iraq or is growing in Afghanistan. "To put in a naval aviator without any command combat experience is like putting a baseball coach in to run the offense in the Super Bowl," grumbles a retired Marine general.

Why did Bush reach over several layers of experienced veterans to pick Fallon? Some critics think he was looking for a senior statesman in uniform, and Fallon certainly fits the bill, both abroad and at home. In Washington, he has developed good contacts with lawmakers from both parties, which may prove critical, as congressional Democrats are now vowing to fight any Administration plan to send more U.S. forces into Iraq as part of a so-called surge. He's "one of America's best strategists," enthuses Ike Skelton, the new Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. But one Marine general who knows the region says it actually makes some sense to put a naval officer in charge. If the U.S. begins redeploying forces outside of Iraq as a part of a drawdown it will increasingly have to use naval vessels, not large land bases, for stationing them.

More importantly, Fallon has gained the President's trust. Fallon hosted a small dinner at his Hawaii headquarters for Bush, who was on his way back from Vietnam last month, and the two men spoke about a range of issues in the Pacific theater. In particular, Pentagon sources say, they agreed that engaging with China was crucial to U.S. interests —a view that Fallon often found being challenged by his former boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

If Fallon was a surprise, few were taken aback by the news that Army Lieut. General David Petraeus will take over Gen. George Casey's job as the on-scene commander in Iraq. Petraeus served in Iraq twice, has a Ph.D in international relations, and comes loaded with the optimism the job requires, not to mention support for the surge option Bush favors. Some Marine officers were pulling for one of their own: Lt. Gen. James Mattis, one of the military's most seasoned combat veterans (he led the complex but successful invasion into Afghanistan and then took the 1st Marine Division on the march to Baghdad). The Marines have not held a senior position in CENTCOM or Iraq since before the start of the war and many of them privately blame poor Army leadership for the war's failures.

Petraeus — whom critics call "King David" for his often sophisticated self-promotion skills — will be in charge of day-to-day fighting in Iraq, while Fallon will oversee the entire Middle East and Southwest Asia, which are under CENTCOM's purview. The admiral will also be tasked with trying to convince Middle Eastern countries to lend the U.S. a hand in redeveloping Iraq's flagging economy.

Fallon, who has logged over 1,600 aircraft carrier landings at sea, has a prickly side and can be demanding with subordinates (though in recent years he's worked to smooth out the rough edges). One of the first things he did upon assuming command of the Pacific theater was order his staff to haul out the war plans for North Korea and other potential flashpoints in the region to probe whether they were credible. Aides say he'll take the same critical approach to war strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon's four-stars who serve as overseas combatant commanders are as much diplomats as warriors, and Fallon has proven to be a particularly deft one. After a Navy submarine struck the Japanese fishing boat Ehime Maru in 2001, killing nine aboard the vessel, Bush dispatched the admiral to Tokyo to deliver the U.S. apology to the government and an angry Japanese public. As Vice Chief of Naval Operations in 2002-2003 he impressed Rumsfeld, who was notorious for bullying his flag officers. When Fallon had to fill in for his boss at service chiefs meetings with Rumsfeld, he took advantage of the fact that he was the junior officer in the group and thus the last called on to speak. It gave him the chance to see how Rummy grilled the other chiefs so he could quickly rearrange his presentation to please the defense secretary. "What Fallon really brings that matters is the proven capability to operate at the regional strategic level and to work and foster relationships," says retired Adm. Stephen Pietropaoili, who's now executive director of the Navy League, an advocacy group for the sea service.

From his headquarters on Oahu, Fallon hasn't been shy about flexing U.S. diplomacy the past two years. Despite wariness of Pentagon hawks, he has pressed to improve relations with Beijing, for example, organizing a joint naval exercise last fall with the Chinese navy. Fallon believes diplomacy is as important a weapon as all the ships, planes and soldiers he commands. Some of that broader view "comes with old age," Fallon told TIME in 2005. Bush now hopes that kind of thinking from the admiral in Asia can help rescue a troubled war in a very different part of the world.