National Security

Middle East commander resigned by phone from Iraq

President George W. Bush and Admiral William Fallon in happier times at the CENTCOM Coalition Conference at MacDill Air Force Base in May 2007.
President George W. Bush and Admiral William Fallon in happier times at the CENTCOM Coalition Conference at MacDill Air Force Base in May 2007. Tiffany Tompkins-Condie / Bradenton Herald / MCT

WASHINGTON — Adm. William J. Fallon, the commander of all U.S. military operations in the Middle East, abruptly ended his nearly 42-year military career Tuesday with a phone call from Iraq in which he asked to resign because of controversy caused by his criticism of the Bush administration's Iran policy.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Tuesday in a hastily convened news conference that he accepted Fallon's resignation because it was the "right thing to do."

Fallon's phone call, and Gates' decision to accept his resignation, ended weeks of speculation within military circles about how long a military commander who appeared to challenge Bush administration policy could hold onto his job.

Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Fallon's deputy and a one-time commander of efforts to train Iraq's security forces, will lead U.S. Central Command until the Senate can confirm a permanent replacement, Gates said. Fallon's resignation is effective March 31.

Fallon's call was unplanned, senior military officials said. Just one day earlier, Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, said that Fallon "still enjoys a working — a good working relationship with the secretary of defense."

But the controversy around Fallon had been hovering for weeks after an Esquire magazine story described him as lone bulwark stopping an overzealous Bush administration from starting a war with Iran.

The article, written by Thomas P.M. Barnett, a former professor at the Naval War College, described Fallon as "brazenly challenging the commander in chief." In it, Fallon is quoted as saying that the Bush administration didn't seem to understand why he was meeting with Middle Eastern leaders and explaining U.S. policy to business gatherings.

"What's the best and most effective way to combat al Qaida?" he said during an interview in Cairo. "I come from the school of walk softly and carry a big stick."

The article also quotes him as telling al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television channel, that war with Iran was undesirable. "This constant drumbeat of conflict . . . is not helpful and not useful," he said. "I expect that there will be no war and that is what we ought to be working toward."

Fallon had been a controversial figure in his post, questioning the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq and openly challenging suggestions that the military would be able to tackle a strike on Iran. But no one had suggested that Fallon might resign until the magazine hit newsstands in January.

Both Gates and Fallon, 62, referred to the Esquire article during Tuesday's announcement.

In a statement issued from Iraq, where he was traveling, Fallon said: "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 in the Centcom region. And although I don't believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy in the Central Command area of responsibility, the simple perception that there is makes it difficult for me to effectively serve America's interests there."

Fallon was the first Navy officer to serve as Centcom commander, and, with his retirement, will become the one that served the shortest time.

Appointed in March 2007, Fallon, who also had served as commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, was brought to Central Command headquarters in part because he had a reputation for stability and problem-solving. At the time, the troop surge had just begun in Iraq, and the military was frustrated by the intractable security situation.

Tensions between Fallon and key military leaders became apparent early on. Fallon privately opposed the surge, and there was often tension between him and Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq. Fallon wanted to pull troops out of Iraq faster than Petraeus did. He suggested that the U.S. should take more risks and send a signal to the Iraqi government that the U.S. presence in Iraq could end soon.

Morrell denied, however, that Fallon's resignation was an effort to silence dissenters in the Pentagon.

"I think it would be a mistake to conclude that Admiral Fallon's resignation will have a chilling effect on the senior leadership in the military," Morrell said. "The secretary has created an environment here that is conducive to military leaders speaking up and expressing their opinions."

Gates called suggestions that the U.S. is more apt to wage a war on Iran after Fallon's resignation "ridiculous." Both Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have called for restraint.

In the Esquire piece, Barnett said he asked Fallon if the Centcom position was "career-capping."

"Career-capping? How about career detonating?" was his response.


Read the Esquire article.

Related stories from McClatchy DC