An embattled Adm. William “Fox” Fallon has asked to step down as chief of U.S. Central Command and to retire from the Navy, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Tuesday afternoon that he has accepted that request.
Fallon’s decision follows a magazine story that portrays him as openly questioning the tenor and direction of the Bush administration’s strategy in the Middle East, particularly its tough talk regarding Iran, which it believes is contributing to unrest and violence in neighboring Iraq and which some members still feel is actively pursuing nuclear weapons development.
At a hastily called Pentagon news conference, Gates said Fallon told him Tuesday morning that “the current embarrassing situation, public perception of differences between my view and administration policy, and the distraction this causes from the mission” makes resigning “the right thing to do.”
Gates said that misperception had become a problem “even though I do not believe there are significant differences between his views and administration policy. … The fact is, administration policy is to try and deal with the Iranian challenge through diplomatic and economic pressures and sanctions. And ‘Fox’ obviously was fully supportive of that.
“We have tried … to put this misperception behind us, over a period of months and, frankly, just have not been successful in doing so,” Gates said, adding that he was not sure why those efforts have been unsuccessful.
As such, accepting Fallon’s resignation request, Gates said, was “the right thing to do.”
Gates said the decision was his alone to make, although he informed President Bush Tuesday morning through National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
Gates told reporters that he approved Fallon’s request “with reluctance and regret.” He also said Fallon “reached this difficult decision entirely on his own.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, issued a statement saying he supported Gates’ decision. Said Mullen, “I also respect the reasons for which Adm. Fallon submitted it and applaud his ability to recognize the responsibility before him.”
But he also applauded Fallon’s overall approach. “He had an enormous impact not only on the way we operate and fight in this new century, but also on the way in which we stay engaged globally,” Mullen said.
Fallon will remain in the job until the end of March, when he will be temporarily replaced by his deputy, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, until a permanent replacement can be nominated, Gates said. Dempsey was nominated in January to become the next commander of U.S. Army Europe.
Fallon, who has led the command responsible for all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia since March 2007, has been dogged by the perception that he disagrees with administration policy on the region — and is less of a hawk on global security than the administration cares for.
As Pacific Command commander — the job he held prior to taking the reins of Central Command — Fallon was an advocate for dialogue and diplomacy with China, viewed by neo-conservatives as a rising threat that should be confronted.
Late last summer, news stories and blogs reported a deep rift in Iraq war policy, particularly on the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals, between Fallon and his top commander on the ground, Army Gen. David Petraeus. Fallon agreed there had been some lively arguments but vehemently denied the two had a dysfunctional relationship.
Then, in a flattering profile by Thomas P.M. Barnett in the current issue of Esquire magazine, Fallon was described as the “one man” standing between the administration and a war with Iran. Barnett wrote that if Fallon were to be fired, war with Iran would be inevitable.
Gates said Tuesday that assertion was “just ridiculous.”
In a subsequent Washington Post article, Fallon called the story “poison pen stuff” and “really disrespectful and ugly.”
The White House believes Iran continues to seek a nuclear weapon — despite recent U.S. intelligence estimates to the contrary — and accuses Iran of sponsoring Middle East terrorist groups and supplying parts for advanced roadside bombs that have killed U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq.
Gates has denied any plans are in the works for a war with Iran. But the White House has done little to tamp down speculation. At a White House news conference in October, Bush said that if Iran gained nuclear weapons, “It could lead to World War III.” That same month, Vice President Dick Cheney flatly declared that the U.S. “will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” and that if Iran persisted in its efforts, the U.S. would be “prepared to impose serious consequences.”
Fallon publicly derided such talk. “This constant drum beat of conflict … is not helpful and not useful,” Fallon told Al-Jazeera television in an interview broadcast Sept. 23.
Yet Fallon hardly sounded dovish when, in the Esquire piece, he was asked what would happen if it came to war. “Get serious,” Fallon was quoted as saying. “These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them.”
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., expressed concern Tuesday over Fallon’s departure. “His decision to resign abruptly in the midst of the war in Iraq raises a number of serious questions that I hope will be answered over the course of the next few days,” Webb said in a press release.
“On many occasions — most recently in letters dated January 17 — I have suggested to the chairmen of both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees that Admiral Fallon be brought more aggressively into the oversight process with respect to the occupation of Iraq and the overall strategic approach to resolving the issues of the region.”
Fallon, who is traveling in Iraq, recently appeared in Washington to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee and was expected to be part of the team briefing President Bush in April on the next steps forward in Iraq, including the important decision on how many U.S. troops will be required on the ground after the current drawdown to 140,000 is completed in July.
Gates said Central Command’s portion of the briefing is “well advanced” and will be complete before Fallon leaves.
Still, Gates said, Fallon “will be difficult to replace. He is enormously talented, very experienced. And he does have a strategic vision that is rare. So it does leave a hole.”
But Gates said he has “a lot of very talented senior military officers” from which to choose a replacement.
In praising Fallon, Gates said that during nearly 42 years of service, “first in the Navy, and then at the helm of two of the most important and dynamic operational commands — Pacific and Central Command — Fox Fallon has led our nation, and hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform, with conviction, strategic vision, integrity and courage.”
Gates also said Fallon managed CentCom “with skill and diplomacy … and has kept foremost in mind the need to protect our vital national security interests in the region.”
“On behalf of the Department of Defense and the nation, I thank him for his years of selfless service,” Gates said.