U.S. commander for Middle East resigns

Adm. William Fallon stepped down after an article in Esquire magazine portrayed his views on Iran as being at odds with those of President Bush.

Dennis Cook/AP
Adm. William Fallon, the commander of U.S. Forces in the Middle East, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The US military commander in charge of the Middle East has stepped down after his stance on preventing a war with Iran became a "distraction at a critical time."

Adm. William "Fox" Fallon, commander of US Central Command in Tampa, Fla., resigned after an article in Esquire magazine portrayed his views on Iran as being at odds with those of his commander in chief, President Bush.

"Recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the president's policy objectives have become a distraction at a critical time and hamper efforts in the CENTCOM region," Admiral Fallon said in a prepared statement. "And although I don't believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy in the Central Command area of responsibility, the simple perception that there is makes it difficult for me to effectively serve America's interests there."

In a profile in the April issue of Esquire magazine, titled "The Man Between War and Peace," Fallon is portrayed as being the sole uniform between Mr. Bush and a war with Iran. The Bush administration has long considered Iran to be part of an "axis of evil." In recent years, new questions have risen over Iran's nuclear program, as well as over its support for Shiite and even some Sunni groups in Iraq, which is blamed for having a destabilizing effect on the country.

"This constant drumbeat of conflict ... is not helpful and not useful," Fallon was quoted as saying during an interview with Al Jazeera television last fall. "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."

The Esquire article reads, "What America needs, Fallon says, is a 'combination of strength and willingness to engage.' " The piece was written by Thomas P.M. Barnett, author of a widely read book a few years ago titled "The Pentagon's New Map."

The Washington Post quoted Fallon as saying that the Esquire article is "poison-pen stuff" and "really disrespectful and ugly."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the commander's resignation in a last-minute press conference in the Pentagon Tuesday afternoon. Secretary Gates said the resignation was not the result of any one article, but he did cite the perception that recent reports left.

"I don't know whether he was misinterpreted or whether people attributed views to him that were not his views, but clearly there was a concern," Gates said.

Fallon was thought to have disliked Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq. Although some believe the rift between them was exaggerated, most defense officials close to the men say it was clear that the two weren't close.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid said Fallon's resignation is another example that "independence and the frank, open airing of experts' views are not welcomed in this administration."

The surprise announcement put some Washington military analysts at a loss to know what it all meant initially. "I can't clearly see what the reason would be for why he resigned," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He notes Fallon's reasonably good relationship with the president and the fact that he was a recent arrival to the job. Fallon was assigned to Central Command about a year ago.

Fallon, who had occupied several senior jobs across the military, may simply be fatigued, Mr. O'Hanlon says, and given the controversy, this may have been as good a time as any to leave.

Although Fallon oversees the Middle East region, the success that General Petraeus has had in Iraq may overshadow his ability to be effective in the job, O'Hanlon says.

Fallon ends a 42-year career in the Navy. Before he was assigned to Central Command, he was the commander of US Pacific Command. There, he often "leaned forward" on engaging with China, arguing that US-Chinese relations were too important to ignore.

Some conservative critics believe he was too friendly with the Chinese, whose military buildup and global ambitions are unclear.

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