While one swallow does not a spring make, a seemingly off-hand remark in a post by Max Boot in Commentary’s blog, ‘Contentions’, last week about Gen. David Petraeus’ possible promotion to Supreme Allied Commander at NATO struck me as at least a hint that neo-conservatives and their allies in the administration may be engaged in a below-the-radar campaign against Adm. William “Fox” Fallon, the current chief of the U.S. Central Command (CentCom), perhaps for being too dovish on Iran.
In the post, Boot, who just returned from an 11-day stay in Iraq, argues against the assigning Petraeus to NATO on the grounds that it would be like switching horses in mid-stream, particularly given the scheduled departure in the next few months from the threater of Petraeus’ second-in-command, Gen. Raymond Odierno. He then argues:
“[I]t would be a waste of the insights that he [Petraeus] has accumulated to send him to NATO, where he would be out of the Iraq fight. It would make more sense to send Petraeus to Central Command, replacing the unimpressive Admiral Fox Fallon, and thereby allowing Petraeus to stay involved in the command loop not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan as well. As for his replacement in Iraq, who better than Odierno, after he has a chance to rest and recharge his batteries stateside? That would keep the winning team together.”
The use of the word “unimpressive” to describe Fallon is fairly remarkable in that Boot provides no evidence to back up such an assessment, particularly as Fallon is actually Petraeus’ direct superior in the chain of command and thus part of that same “winning team.” A quick look at the archives, however, suggests one reason why Boot doesn’t seem to like Fallon — another post he wrote last November in which he complained about Fallon’s downplaying of the administration’s threats against Iran.
“Thus it was puzzling to see Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, telling the Financial Times that, as the headline had it, “U.S. strike on Iran ‘not being prepared.’” The content of the article was a bit more complex: while Fallon was quoted as saying that a strike is not “in the offing,” he continued, “That said, we have to make sure there is no mistake on the part of the Iranians about our resolve in tending to business in the region.”
The Iranians can be forgiven for having grave doubts about U.S. resolve, however, when the senior U.S. military figure in the region is going out of his way to assure them that their threatening actions will not result in American military action.”
Now, as my colleague, Gareth Porter, has reported, it’s no secret that the personal and professional chemistry between Fallon and Petraeus, who has sometimes sounded distinctly more hawkish about Iran, famously accusing it during Congressional hearings last September, for example, of engaging in a “proxy war” against the U.S. in Iraq, seems somewhat less than optimal, and it may be significant in that regard that Boot just returned from Iraq where he presumably met with Petraeus.
But this put-down of Fallon is also taking place amid a larger and growing debate about the pace of the ongoing drawdown of U.S. combat troops in Iraq about which the neo-conservatives (and their hero, Gen. Petraeus) are clearly very concerned, as indicated by an important op-ed, entitled “Don’t Short-Circuit the Surge,” by Kimberly Kagan in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. Kagan, who has been issuing glowing reports over the past six months about the Surge’s success for the American Enterprise Institute and the Weekly Standard, argues not only for halting the withdrawal of U.S. troops to pre-Surge levels after July (at about 135,000) — as called for under the current plan — but even for reconsidering that schedule. “Any realistic evaluation suggests that returning to pre-surge levels by July 2008, as some are suggesting carries considerable risk,” according to her.
Of course, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated several times in the last few months that he hopes to continue withdrawing troops beyond July at the same rate as they are being withdrawn at the present time, or about 5,000 a month. That would bring the U.S. troops presence in Iraq by the end of the year to around 110,000. Gates, whose position reportedly reflects the growing concern of both the Joint Chiefs and Fallon’s Central Command that the retention of a larger presence in Iraq badly compromises the ability of U.S. forces to respond to other military contingencies, has just ordered 3,200 more marines to Afghanistan and is increasingly concerned about events in Pakistan. Indeed, it appears that the Pentagon and Central Command (and the intelligence community) increasingly see the “central front in the war on terror” as being in Afghanistan/Pakistan rather than in Iraq (let alone Iran).
Petraeus, on the other hand, has suggested that he wants to review the situation in March to assess whether further withdrawals are advisable, and Odierno, like Kagan, has publicly questioned the wisdom of any further withdrawals beyond July. After meeting with Petraeus in Kuwait nine days ago, Bush himself said he was inclined to defer to Petraeus’ judgment. “I said to the general, ‘If you want to slow her down, fine. It’s up to you,'” he told reporters at the time.
The pace of the drawdown, then, would appear to be the next big battle between the hawks and the “realists” over Iraq (and Iran), and the neo-cons are trying to get their licks in against the “realists” — in Boot’s case, Fallon — as early as possible.