Iran Dissent Cost Fallon His Job

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Stefan Zaklin / EPA

Adm. William Fallon, commander of the U.S. Central Command testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 4, 2008.

Even once in awhile a military man achieves immortality by jumping onto a hand grenade to take the explosion and save his buddies' lives. That, essentially, is what Admiral William "Fox" Fallon, chief of U.S. Central Command, did on Tuesday. But the "grenade" that ended his 41-year military career was a fawning profile in the latest issue of Esquire magazine — an article that pitted him against President Bush, and one with whose author Fallon had cooperated. "He jumped," one Navy officer said, "on a hand grenade that he threw."

Fallon had held his command, which included Iraq and Afghanistan, for the past year. A Navy pilot, he liked to "push the envelope" both in the air and in his comments on U.S. policy in the region. In the April Esquire, Thomas Barnett, a former professor at the Naval War College, wrote that Fallon was "brazenly challenging" the Bush Administration's push to go to war with Iran, fighting "against what he saw as an ill-advised action." The lengthy article claimed that while President Bush wants war with Iran, "the admiral has urged restraint and diplomacy," adding, "Who will prevail, the president or the admiral?"

"Deifying Fallon at the expense of the President isn't helpful to a sitting commander," a Joint Staff officer noted. Nor was it the first time the admiral had sailed close to the wind in commenting on the policies of his commander-in-chief. Last fall, in a comment to the Arab television channel Al-Jazeera, Fallon said a "constant drumbeat of conflict" out of Washington about war with Iran was "not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for." Yet, both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have also maintained that the current confrontation with Iran should be resolved diplomatically. But Fallon, when he got outside of Washington, let his independent streak — a tradition among naval officers — say things to TV cameras and reporters that back in the capital he would confine to closed-door meetings at the Pentagon. And the hawks who had been most sanguine about pressing the case for invading Iraq had also been urging a more confrontational line on Iran.

Fallon's backers in and out of the Pentagon said his departure simply proves that the Administration brooks no dissent on matters of war and peace. "Bush says he'll listen to commanders in the field," one retired admiral says, "unless they say something he doesn't like, and then he fire them." Senior Pentagon officials insist Fallon left on his own, but those familiar with the Pentagon's ways had their doubts. "We're not telling you what to do, Fox" the admiral suggests Gates told Fallon, "but there's hemlock in the cup."

Gates told reporters in a hastily called briefing that a public "misperception" of a gap between Fallon and the Administration on Iran policy couldn't be erased, and that its "cumulative" impact had become a "distraction" that prompted Fallon to offer his resignation on Tuesday morning. "That's why I believe he has made the right choice," Gates said. The Secretary said he couldn't explain the persistence of this "misperception," or why it couldn't be eliminated. "We have tried to put this misperception behind us over a period of months and, frankly, just have not been successful in doing so."

Pentagon officials were upset that Fallon had allowed the Esquire writer Barnett — who said Bush "regularly trash-talks his way to World War III" — travel with him to Afghanistan and Egypt, granted him several interviews, and posed for a photograph that accompanied the article. "There was a pattern of behavior by Fallon," a senior Pentagon official said. "He seemed to be saying things that were out of step with the Administration. Gates never found Fallon to be straying, but certainly publicly he seemed to be straying." Fallon plainly knew the explosive potential of the magazine article; he called Gates last week before the Defense Secretary had seen it and warned him to "brace himself." Fallon told the Washington Post last Thursday that the article was "poison pen stuff" and called it "really disrespectful and ugly." In a statement issued Tuesday, he said "it would be best to step aside and allow the secretary and our military leaders to move beyond this distraction."

Fallon isn't the first four-star officer to lose his job for verbal missteps. General Michael Duggan was fired as Air Force chief of staff by then-defense secretary Dick Cheney in 1990 for telling reporters traveling with him about Air Force attack options to help drive Iraq out of Kuwait following Saddam Hussein's invasion of that country earlier that year. In 1995, Admiral Richard Macke, then the head of Pacific Command, was ousted after telling reporters over breakfast that sailors and Marines who beat and raped a 12-year-old Japanese girl should have hired a prostitute instead of paying for the car they rented and used in the crime.

Within hours of Fallon's announcement that he would be leaving his post at the end of the month (to be replaced, at least temporarily, by his deputy, Army Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey), Democrats were criticizing what they perceived as his forced departure. "It is no secret that I do not see eye to eye with the Administration on most foreign policy issues, and the credibility which Admiral Fallon brought to the issues he was involved in will be sorely missed," said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "A military axiom is the need to speak truth to power," added Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee's intelligence panel. "And it still seems that smart people who do, end their careers."

The betting inside the Pentagon is that despite Fallon's departure, war with Iran is no more likely next month than it was last month. The U.S. military, its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, could only engage in an air war against Iran's nuclear sites. The ramifications of attacking a third Muslim nation since 9/11 are so extreme, military officers believe, that no President would launch such a war in his final months in office.