Despite speculation that the sudden retirement Tuesday of Adm. William Fallon, the head of US Central Command, might suggest a push by the White House toward war with Iran, Admiral Fallon's resignation appears not to be a signal of new hostilities.
Fallon had publicly opposed possible military action against Iran. But, The Washington Post reports, the Bush administration's support for a military strike has eroded in recent months.
[President] Bush has publicly maintained that he wants to use diplomacy to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but he has pointedly refused to take the military option off the table. Some experts cautioned that Bush's views could still trump his advisers' contrary opinions. Yet, the administration's ability to execute such a strategy has been weakened in recent months, said former officials and Iran experts, in large measure because a November intelligence estimate on Iran lessened anxieties that the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons capability is imminent. "The way [White House officials] see Iran has not gone away," said Vali Nasr, an authority on Iran at Tufts University. "Their capacity to do something has been cut down."
The perception that Fallon's departure could be a precursor to a conflict with Iran was put forward in an article titled "The Man Between War and Peace" from the April issue of Esquire. The article, published before the admiral stepped down, described Fallon as "the good cop on Iran," the lone voice in the Bush administration opposing military force against Iran, and indicated Bush "may have had enough."
Well-placed observers now say that it will come as no surprise if Fallon is relieved of his command before his time is up next spring, maybe as early as this summer, in favor of a commander the White House considers to be more pliable. If that were to happen, it may well mean that the president and vice-president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year and don't want a commander standing in their way.
The article prompted a flurry of subsequent media reports, which Fallon cited as the reason for his retirement. Some reports speculated that the Esquire article might prophesy a possible escalation in Iran.
For example, US News and World Report blogger Terry Atlas offers "six developments that may have Iran as a common thread. And, if it comes to war, they may be seen as clues as to what was planned." In addition to Fallon's departure, Mr. Atlas also cites Vice President Dick Cheney's Middle East visit, the presence of US warships near Lebanon, and Israeli military action against Hizbullah and Syria in the past few years. Atlas notes however that all of the events he cites have possible explanations that are independent of Iran.
Less speculatively, Bloomberg quotes several politicians, including Sens. John Kerry, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Chuck Hagel, expressing their concerns over his departure and its ramifications in regard to US policy toward Iran.
But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dismissed allegations of a pending war with Iran, reports the Financial Times.
Mr Gates said suggestions that the resignation indicated the US was preparing for war with Iran were "ridiculous," comments later echoed by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs.... Many current and former officers believe Adm Fallon was not a dove on Iran but was concerned that belligerent rhetoric from the US could provoke an accidental war. Adm Fallon's positions had rankled with the White House on several occasions. Officials were upset in November when he suggested to the Financial Times that the administration's rhetoric on Iran was "not particularly helpful."
The Washington Times writes that some military officials welcomed his departure, criticizing Fallon for failing to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq, thereby making US efforts there more difficult.
"The fact is that [Central Command] had the external responsibility to protect our troops in Iraq from the outside and under Fallon they failed to do it," said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, a military analyst. "We have done nothing to protect our soldiers from external threats in Iraq." Others said Adm. Fallon was pushed to resign. "No matter what [Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates] said [Tuesday], we know for a fact Admiral Fallon was fired," said a former senior Defense official who works closely with military officials in the region. "We have kids — soldiers — getting killed because Iran, Syria and other foreign fighters are coming across the border into Iraq, and yet Fallon was unwilling to do anything to hold [those nations] accountable."
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.
Most reports agree that Fallon's departure at its core is not due to the White House's plans for Iran, but rather to Fallon's vocal disagreements with the Bush administration, on Iran and on other military topics. In an editorial, The Boston Globe writes that despite tradition that top military commanders keep their dissent private, "the usual strictures against airing policy differences in public should not have been enforced" in this case, due to "the validity of Fallon's advice" and the Bush administration's "history of stumbling into grievous strategic errors" when ignoring the advice of military commanders.
The Dallas Morning News, in an editorial, also blames Fallon's outspokenness for his departure, but argues that it was right for him to go.
"We do think the Pentagon's top commanders should speak up – privately – when they think the president is contemplating a bad move. But it's essential that the commander in chief set the policy. Once that's done, the president's orders must be followed without inappropriate second-guessing in public."
And in his column for The Washington Post, David Ignatius chronicles a series of conflicts between the White House and Fallon, "a guy with a mouth that could peel the paint off the walls." In particular, Mr. Ignatius notes that Fallon frequently butted heads with Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and General Petraeus's close relationship with the White House "made for an awkward chain of command." Ignatius concludes:
"I understand the White House's desire for an orderly chain of command and the need for military officers to trust each other's discretion. But in the case of Fallon, I see a lot of good that came from having a headstrong blowtorch of a man speaking truth to power."