It’s Not All About Iran


Global Security Newswire

© National Journal Group Inc.
Thursday, March 13, 2008

“The last thing the Middle East needs now is another war,” a senior Defense Department official recently said when asked about the prospect that President Bush might order airstrikes on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons facilities.

Were those the famous last words of Adm. William J. “Fox” Fallon — the nation’s top commander, who resigned under pressure this week after the publication of an Esquire profile describing him as “brazenly challenging his commander in chief” by resisting war against Tehran?

Not exactly.

That statement was actually made by Fallon’s boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a New York Times piece published last month. On Tuesday, in announcing the commander’s resignation, Gates termed “ridiculous” an assertion by Esquire writer Thomas P.M. Barnett that Fallon’s departure could signal a coming war with Iran.

True, neoconservatives bristled at Fallon’s comments to al-Jazeera last fall that “there will be no war” with Iran and “that is what we ought to be working for.” And Fallon has rattled the saber-rattlers with his broad commitment to diplomacy as a means of defusing conflict-a tack he also took toward China in his prior role as U.S. Commander in the Pacific.

But talk of airstrikes — though not off the table — has generally quieted down following the November National Intelligence Estimate [PDF] that cast doubt on Iran’s current nuclear activities. “For Barnett to stage all of this — to say the administration would go to war with Iran if not for this man — it’s almost a fictionalized thing,” a senior defense official told National Journal.

And the departing admiral’s expansive view of the Middle East as an interconnected web of complex interests conformed fairly closely to Gates’ own strategic approach. Though the defense secretary accepted the resignation, citing Fallon’s admission that the magazine profile had proved “embarrassing,” Gates also offered high praise for his “strategic vision.”

So what’s really behind the 40-year Navy veteran’s abrupt decision to step down? One tension has been an anticipated pause in the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, which the commander worried would take pressure off Baghdad to hasten national reconciliation. Fallon also found himself continually ironing out wrinkles over how best to pursue American interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to military officials.

On their own, none of these issues likely would have justified resignation. In fact, Gates said he did not see “significant differences” between Fallon’s views and administration policy. But he said a “cumulative” misperception about such cleavages proved to be a “distraction,” interfering with the commander’s effectiveness. What ultimately forced him out, military officials say, was a mounting number of media reports painting Fallon as a relatively free agent only nominally under White House control.

Some observers think that perception was just fine by Fallon, a straight-talking old-schooler with a devilish streak. “Unlike those who stick around and then make their views known after retirement, Fallon has used his retirement as a line in the sand,” said one former senior military leader.

Elaine M. Grossman is a reporter for National Journal Group’s Global Security Newswire.

[Reprinted by permission of National Journal Group. This article may not be reproduced or redistributed, in part or in whole, without express permission of the publisher. Copyright 2007, National Journal Group. For more information and exclusive news, go to or]

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