News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqMideast commander retires after rankling bosses

Mideast commander retires after rankling bosses


New York Times: Adm. William J. Fallon, the commander of American forces in the Middle East whose outspoken public statements on Iran and other issues had seemed to put him at odds with the Bush administration, is retiring early, the Pentagon announced Tuesday. The New York Times

Published: March 12, 2008

WASHINGTON — Adm. William J. Fallon, the commander of American forces in the Middle East whose outspoken public statements on Iran and other issues had seemed to put him at odds with the Bush administration, is retiring early, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.

Admiral Fallon had rankled senior officials of the Bush administration in recent months with comments that emphasized diplomacy over conflict in dealing with Iran, that endorsed further troop withdrawals from Iraq beyond those already under way and that suggested the United States had taken its eye off the military mission in Afghanistan.

A senior administration official said that, taken together, the comments “left the perception he had a different foreign policy than the president.”

Admiral Fallon, 63, took over the Central Command only a year ago, becoming the first admiral to become the top officer there. In a statement issued by his headquarters, he acknowledged that “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” across his region.

His premature retirement was announced by his civilian boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who said he accepted the admiral’s request to retire “with reluctance and regret.”

The White House issued a statement from President Bush that, while complimentary, was pale by comparison to other messages of farewell for senior officials with whom Mr. Bush has worked more closely. The statement said Admiral Fallon had served his country with “honor, determination and commitment” and deserved “considerable credit” for the progress in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his statement, Admiral Fallon said, “I don’t believe there have been any differences about the objectives of our policy” in the Middle East. Indeed, many of his public statements have fallen within the range of views expressed by Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But there was no question that the admiral’s premature departure stemmed from what were perceived to be policy differences with the administration on Iran and Iraq, where his views competed with those of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, who is a favorite of the White House.

During a news briefing to announce the retirement of Admiral Fallon, a man hailed by the defense secretary as one of the most brilliant strategic minds in the military, Mr. Gates was asked whether the unexpected departure could be seen as a prelude to preparation for a war with Iran.

“It’s just ridiculous,” Mr. Gates responded.

Across the officer corps, a large number of senior military leaders share Admiral Fallon’s broad assessment that a war with Iran would bring unexpected and, perhaps, unmanageable, risks elsewhere in the Muslim world and around the globe.

But many said they agreed that once it became clear he had lost the confidence of his civilian bosses, it was the responsibility of the four-star admiral to retire. That was especially so, they said, as it became obvious that no great effort was being made by civilian leaders to persuade him to remain in command.

At the same time, some younger officers who have been critical of senior commanders for not speaking up about the risks of invading Iraq now see a senior officer who did speak his mind publicly being prompted to choose early retirement.

A number of officials said the last straw 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 was “not helpful and not useful.”

“I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for,” Admiral Fallon was quoted as saying. “We ought to try to do our utmost to create different conditions.”

Readers of the Esquire article who are among the admiral’s supporters said they did not believe after reading it that the admiral had made comments that could be viewed as insubordinate to the president. But the cast of the lengthy article put him 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, referring to Admiral Fallon. “If we do not go to war with Iran, it’ll come down to the same man.”

Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen have maintained an unwavering public line that disagreements with Iran should be resolved diplomatically, and that any military option was only the last resort. That view is frequently expressed by Mr. Bush, although some White House officials are said to hold far more hawkish views on dealing with Iran.

Mr. Gates said Tuesday that Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the Army officer who is No. 2 at Central Command and has served two tours in Iraq since the invasion of 2003, would temporarily take Admiral Fallon’s place when the admiral retires at the end of this month, and would serve until a permanent replacement was nominated and confirmed by the Senate.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, pounced on the retirement announcement, calling it “yet another example that independence and the frank, open airing of experts’ views are not welcome in this administration.”

When Admiral Fallon was nominated in January 2007 to be the commander of American military forces across a region where they are engaged in two ground wars, the choice struck many analysts as odd.

Admiral Fallon replaced Gen. John P. Abizaid of the Army. 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.

Although known for being tough on his subordinates, he also developed a reputation for nuanced diplomatic negotiations with friendly nations, and with some with whom the United States has more prickly ties.

Steven Lee Myers and David Stout contributed reporting.

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