As much as I would like to agree with Steve Clemons and Chris Nelson, I think Adm. Fallon’s resignation is very bad news, less because it signals war with Iran, as a few analysts have argued (although it certainly makes war more possible), than it suggests rather strongly that the “realists,” have lost ground in their never-ending war with the hawks in and outside the administration over control of the “global war on terror.” It seems very clear to me, among other things from the comments of Sec. Gates, who leads the realist faction, that the resignation resulted from White House pressure, and that Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, among others, really did not want Fallon to go. For much of the past year, Fallon had acted as their “point man” (in the military sense) in trying to promote a saner strategic policy toward the entire region covered by the Central Command and not one that was so obsessed with achieving “victory” in Iraq (and unmitigated hostility toward Iran). His departure will clearly weaken the realists’ hand in the ongoing battles against the neo-conservatives (who, as I noted most recently in late January, had mounted a mostly under-the-radar campaign to get Fallon relieved of his responsibilities at the earliest possible moment) and other hawks, particularly those most closely associated with Cheney.
Gates insisted that Fallon had “reached this difficult decision entirely on his own,” a somewhat questionable assertion given Fallon’s remarkably strongly worded public rejection of the Esquire profile by Thomas Barnett that most analysts believe was the straw that broke the camel’s back at the White House.
“I believe it was the right thing to to do,” Gates went on, “even though I do not believe there are, in fact, significant differences between his views and administration policy” (which, of course, raises the question why, if there were indeed no significant differences, they could not be cleared up to everyone’s satisfaction. After all, as the New York Times noted Wednesday, “many of [Fallon’s] public statements have fallen within the range of views expressed by Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen…” I would add that this includes both calming tensions with Iran and pausing only briefly in July before continuing to draw down troops in Iraq to as few as 110,000 by the end of the year.) Gates noted that he accepted Fallon’s resignation “with reluctance and regret” and described him as “enormously talented and very experienced” and as having “a strategic vision that is rare.”
Of course, that strategic vision, which is spelled out at some length in Barnett’s profile, is anathema to the hawks as much as it is ambrosia to the realists. Fallon was already in bad odor with the hawks for his eagerness to engage the Chinese military when he served as the head of the Pacific Command from 2005 to 2007; it was a major bureaucratic coup that Gates and the Pentagon brass prevailed in his transfer to Centcom. That Fallon subsequently argued within administration councils for a similar kind of outreach toward Iran — he pushed hard for an “incidents-at-sea” agreement with Tehran — no doubt only fueled the hawks’ hostility and distrust. But for him to promote the case publicly through Barnett’s article was too much for the White House to bear, particularly when Cheney and others had been complaining for months that Fallon’s repeated declarations against war with Iran had effectively undermined the administration’s insistence that all options for dealing with Tehran remained “on the table.” Fallon’s well-known scepticism about the ultimate success of the “Surge,” his barely concealed contempt for Bush and neo-con hero, Gen. David Petraeus, and his belief — shared by the intelligence community and the Pentagon brass, not to mention Gates himself — that the most threatening “central front” in the war on terror was to be found in Pakistan and Afghanistan, rather than in Iraq and Iran, combined to make him the most vulnerable of the realists to the hawks’ assault. And, of course, the way Barnett framed Fallon’s role — as the “one man” standing between the hawks and war with Iran (a silly and unnecessarily sensational characterization given the well-known views of both Gates and the Joint Chiefs) who was “brazenly challenging his commander-in-chief” — constituted an irresistible provocation to the White House and Bush’s own self-image as “the Decider.”
As noted by the Center for American Progress’ (CAP) daily Progress Report Thursday, the hawks, and particularly the neo-conservatives, are most pleased with the latest turn of events (and not because it supposedly vindicates the principle of civilian control of the military, as they insist). Max Boot, who, after touring Iraq with Petraeus earlier this year, characterized Fallon as “unimpressive,” called the resignation “good news,” while the Wall Street Journal’s neo-conservative editorial board called it “especially good news.” In the National Review Online, Center for Security Policy (CSP) president and ueber-hawk Frank Gaffney reached back to what he called Fallon’s “toxic leadership” and “appeasement of Communist China” during his Paccom tenure and accused him of “serial acts of insubordination” who had “proven himself utterly unserious about the Iranian threat” by suggesting, among other things, that Tehran could eventually participate in a summit of Persian Gulf chiefs of defense.” The notion that Iran could, if it is willing to make certain concessions, become a part of a new regional security structure apparently is beyond the pale, despite the fact that the administration itself has not excluded such a possibility.
Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard ran a lengthy and tendentious piece by Naval War College Prof. Mackubin Thomas Owens that bemoaned the turbulent state of civil-military relations and accused Fallon, without providing any concrete evidence, “of contradicting the president in public,” presumably with respect to the Surge (where Fallon’s reservations were voiced privately and clearly reflected those of both Gates and the Pentagon brass, including the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George Casey) and on Iran (where Fallon has repeatedly echoed the official U.S. line that Washington did not want to go to war but never ruled it out altogether either). “The differences between Fallon and the administration were real, not the result of any misperception,”Owens insisted, thus contradicting statements not only by Fallon and Gates, but by the White House, as well.
What is really at stake here, of course, is control over U.S. policy and the way it is conducting its “global war on terror.” Fallon’s enemies see Iraq as the central front in that war and that Washington must “win” it at all costs, even at the risk of further degrading overstretched U.S. ground forces. (The Journal, channeling John McCain, suggests that the answer to that risk to substantially increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.) And they oppose any detente with Iran, even at the risk of triggering an accidental war that the U.S. military and the oil-consuming public can ill afford. They see Fallon’s “strategic vision,” which it seems that Gates and the Joint Chiefs share, as a major threat to their priorities.
And they should. As noted in a release by the National Security Network Wednesday,
“Adm. Fallon’s resignation yesterday as head of Central Command underscores the deep divisions and philosophical debate between those in the Bush Administration who seek to narrowly focus on Iraq, and those who seek to create a broader strategic and regional framework of which Iraq is one component. Fallon’s abrupt resignation highlights the concerns of those who hold the latter view, and further demonstrates how the Bush Administration is neglecting this perspective to the detriment of America’s short and long-term national security interests.”
That view is echoed by Wayne White, the highly regarded former State Department analyst who spent most of his nearly 30-year foreign service career devoted to the Middle East and South Asia region:
“Whatever the story here–differences with the Administration over Iran, clashes with Petraeus over Iraq, a tendency toward somewhat more independent regional diplomacy, or all the above–Fallon’s departure is a major loss.
“This Administration clearly needs someone who could step back from Iraq–or the issues of Iran, Afghanistan & Pakistan collectively–in order to take a hard look at the situation (including the impact of these challenges in the context of so-called U.S. global reach, the readiness of American ground forces, and overall U.S. credibility) at the strategic level.
“Fallon was able to think not only strategically, but also ‘out of the box,’ something so often lacking in the deliberations of the Administration since 2002–an Administration which has been plagued by groupthink.”
White’s comments offer the most succinct reason why I think Fallon’s departure — and the fact that Gates and the Joint Chiefs, who, to my mind, clearly share his strategic views, if not his outspokenness — is bad news. The fact that the realists will no longer have an officer of Fallon’s stature “walking the point” in the bureaucratic battles over U.S. strategy in the months before Bush leaves office is a potentially serious blow to their efforts to reduce the hawks’ influence on U.S. policy and one that could well influence the calculations of the regional players in ways that will increase tensions and the chances of a major confrontation, rather than reduce them.
In that respect, the juxtaposition of Fallon’s resignation with Cheney’s trip to the region has to be seen as particularly worrisome. While I have no doubt a major purpose of the trip is to jawbone the Saudis and the UAE into increasing their oil production as a way of enhancing the chances of a Republican victory in the November presidential elections, the Israel leg of the trip seems particularly fraught. On the one hand, it may be that, given the part played by Cheney in undermining Powell’s efforts to resume peace Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in early 2002, Bush and Rice decided that the vice president would be especially effective in persuading Israel’s leaders to make serious concessions to Abbas, including a real freeze on settlement activity, to get make the Annapolis process more credible. But I have my doubts. With Fallon’s departure — not to mention the administration’s last-minute efforts to make it more difficult for the media and the public to get their hands on the Pentagon report detailing just how wrong the hawks were in trying to connect Saddam Hussein with al Qaeda — Cheney and his allies may be feeling their oats.