Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
April 12, 2007
Pg. 1

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Lessons from engaging China

Adm. William Fallon, the new U.S. commander in the Middle East, is expected to immediately drive the intelligence community to develop a greater understanding of nations and actors in the region, with a particular focus on demystifying Iran, according to officials familiar with his approach.

The career naval aviator is said to be unusually aggressive in tracking down reliable information to help decipher foreign actions and intent.

Among warfighters, knowing one’s enemy is a crucial prerequisite for succeeding in combat. But for Fallon, detailed intelligence on foreign leaders, the power they exert and how they interrelate is also a critical facet in avoiding war, say those who have worked with the admiral.

Western concerns about the growing Iranian capability to produce nuclear weapons and indications of that nation’s involvement in sectarian violence in Iraq threaten to trigger a military confrontation with the United States.

But in Fallon’s view, high stakes sometimes call for a creative response. To most effectively meet U.S. interests, a commander should seek out ways around discord with a potential foe, he suggests. The 62- year-old New Jersey native also advocates developing better peacetime relationships with allies whose support could be critical during a crisis.

“With allies, we . . . refine [and] advance areas of common interest,” the admiral told Inside the Pentagon in a telephone interview on March 9, his last day as commander of forces in the Asia-Pacific region. “With others that are not quite as closely aligned, we work similar agendas, as we can.”

In either case, the critical work will be done largely outside of public view, according to defense experts. Yet the trend lines already appear to be taking shape.

Prior to Fallon’s taking command in the Middle East, U.S. officials attended a regional conference in Iraq at which Iranian officials took part, a development many saw as a potential start toward thawing Washington’s relations with Tehran.

Fallon called the proximate timing of the March 10 conference with his appointment “interesting,” but would not elaborate on how he might further develop the relationship.

Immediately following his March 16 arrival at the Tampa, FL-based U.S. Central Command, Fallon embarked on a three-week introductory tour of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He met with the top leaders of both nations, as well as those in Pakistan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

On March 27, his command launched naval exercises billed as the largest demonstration of force in the Persian Gulf since the 2003 Iraq war was launched. Some viewed the event, which included 15 warships and more than 100 aircraft, as a not-so-subtle signal to Iran that the U.S. military remains powerful in the region, despite setbacks in Iraq.

At the time, Iran was holding 15 British sailors and Marines, whose Gulf capture and release 13 days later only underscored how enigmatic Iranian behavior remains to observers in the West.

Before heading out on his trip, Fallon told ITP he intended to “sponge up” as much knowledge about his new region as he could, ask leaders in the region for their viewpoints on the challenges they face, and ultimately attempt to reach some conclusions of his own.

Fallon also directed his staff to report back to him on Central Command’s current intelligence collection requirements, strategy and priorities, according to a senior defense intelligence official. (This official, like several others interviewed for this article, agreed to speak only on condition of not being named.)

Asked this week about his focus on developing clearer intelligence on his new region, Fallon told ITP, “Making accurate assessments requires careful study and evaluation of the best information we can get -- understanding, of course, that much of what one hears is inaccurate.”

The admiral’s initial moves at Central Command parallel the approach he took during his two-year assignment as head of U.S. Pacific Command, according to defense officials.

There, Fallon reportedly pushed hard on his staff and advisers to develop a fuller understanding of the governing structures and militaries of all 43 nations in U.S. Pacific Command’s area of responsibility. Ultimately, the commander was able to name several of the top political and military leaders in every country and recall his most recent exchanges with each, officials say.

Fallon “was absolutely tireless about seeking information from multiple sources,” says one senior defense official who has worked closely with him. “He was the most networked son-of-a-gun that I ever met.”

Broader and deeper intelligence helped advance Fallon’s engagement efforts and, in turn, engagement spawned greater intelligence, according to the intelligence official.

“The two worked hand-in-hand,” this senior official told ITP last week.

A ‘catalytic role’

The conventional wisdom in Washington when Fallon’s nomination for the new post was announced in early January was that his naval experience could be an asset if the White House opts to attack Iranian nuclear facilities from nearby warships or air bases. And his diplomatic skills might be put to use in building a coalition of nations in support of such air strikes, says Peter Brookes, who led the Pentagon’s Asia- Pacific policy office during President Bush’s first term.

But others who worked with Fallon during his tour as head of Pacific Command emphasize that his drive to defuse tensions with China -- even while hanging tough in response to Beijing’s emerging anti-satellite weapons capability -- might offer important clues to the way in which the admiral will approach hot-button issues with Iran.

“He played a very useful, catalytic role in teasing out how little the intelligence community had collected on Chinese military capabilities [and] intentions, [their] decision-making process, their debates about the future, their sensitivities and really the purpose of their military build-up,” says Michael Pillsbury, a Pentagon adviser who has worked with Fallon.

Defense officials describe how, prior to each of the admiral’s three trips to China to meet with political and military leaders, he requested everything the intelligence services knew about each individual’s portfolio, how much power they wielded and how they related to one another.

“What he got back was pablum,” said one official familiar with the results.

Explains Pillsbury: “They didn’t know anything of strategic significance, like the precise purpose of [China’s] navy build-up.”

The so-called Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, co-chaired by former Sen. Charles Robb (D-VA) and former federal judge Laurence Silberman, hinted two years ago that the U.S. intelligence community understands very little about the Iranian effort to develop a nuclear capability. (It said the same about U.S. intelligence on proliferation threats from China, North Korea and Russia.)

“We have only limited access to critical information about several of these high-priority intelligence targets,” according to the March 2005 report.

“One thing Fox will do is ramp up intelligence on Iran,” said Pillsbury, referring to Fallon by his Navy call sign. “One of the most difficult things [in dealing] with Iran is for us to understand who makes policy there.”

It remains unclear which Iranian individuals or organizations exert authority over the nation’s nuclear development program, support acts of terrorism or control the elite guard force, known as al Quds.

Therein lies a rough parallel with China, some experts say. Many believe Chinese President Hu Jintao exerts only limited authority over the People’s Liberation Army, which is actually overseen by generals who dominate Beijing’s Central Military Commission; a similar phenomenon may exist regarding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s control over military forces, relative to the conservative clerics who appear to dominate the instruments of national power.

“The similarity between Iran and China is [in deciphering] the decision- making process and knowing who’s really in charge of military strategic matters,” observes Pillsbury. Effectively countering anti-American policies will likely require understanding which Iranian individuals or organizations are behind them, otherwise “we’re dealing with the wrong people,” he said.

Brookes, now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, notes the U.S. relationships with China and Iran are very different and cautions against taking the analogy too far. After all, the United States has developed a complex political and military relationship with China and leaders from the two nations meet with some regularity.

By contrast, the United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Iran, a nation Bush branded as part of an “axis of evil” in January 2002.

The icy U.S. relationship with Iran will likely limit the Bush administration’s use of Fallon to make public overtures to Iran, though quiet contacts might be feasible. “Obviously Adm. Fallon can’t just fly into Tehran to meet the leaders, as he did with Beijing,” said one defense expert.

Pretty well nowhere’

Yet Fallon’s own remarks 17 months ago on the U.S. relationship with China might just as easily apply to the current situation with Iran.

“The fact that we are pretty well nowhere in that relationship, and the consequences of being in that position, are pretty obvious to me,”
Fallon told ITP in November 2005. “There’s no easy way to communicate [and] the absence of a regular dialogue or some basis for having a conversation tends to leave us in a position of the unknown.”

“There are some interesting parallels [there], if you don’t take them too far,” says Kurt Campbell, who headed the Pentagon’s Asia policy shop during the Clinton administration. He noted both China and Iran are ascending regional powers, and their relationships with the United States have suffered, in part, from American policy missteps. Campbell is now CEO of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

During last month’s interview, the admiral expanded on the conceptual underpinnings of his commitment to using military engagement as a means of resolving brewing tensions.

“We get used to doing things a certain way. And if we don’t challenge ourselves to think about possibilities, we tend to put one foot in front of the other and kind of move down the path,” said Fallon, whose new post is a rare fourth assignment as a four-star flag officer. “And I believe that we occasionally have to really step back and try to look at ourselves in different lights.”

Without such reflection, “it’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to- day,” Fallon said, “and kind of forget where we’re going.”

To ensure his initiatives remain on track, the admiral said he tries to “occasionally pull myself up and say, ‘Where do we want to be 10 years from now? Twenty years from now?’”

With a vision in mind, Fallon says he then asks himself: “What steps are we taking? If we continue to take the steps along this vector, is this going to get us where we think we’d like to be, or not?”

Putting out fires

If one key objective in the Middle East is preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, military diplomacy may not represent the most useful steps, says Brookes.

“I’m not sure I see any advantage in leaning forward with any military- diplomatic strategy with Iran,” he told ITP. “The hot wars right now are Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is a different story.”

The first to agree might be Fallon himself, who was asked where his primary focus would be.

“It’s pretty easy in this place: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq,” said Fallon, promptly adding: “And Afghanistan, Afghanistan.”

He takes charge of military operations in the region at a time when both chambers of Congress have passed legislation calling on Bush to bring troops home from Iraq in 2008. The president has threatened to veto any such measure that reaches his desk, raising the prospect of a political impasse over funding for continued operations in Iraq.

Meanwhile, resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda elements have increasingly destabilized Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who took over from former Pentagon head Donald Rumsfeld in December, has vowed to bolster U.S. military operations in both nations. He is overseeing a surge of U.S. forces into Iraq and has said he will provide additional support for U.S. commanders in Afghanistan as they prepare for increased fighting this spring.

Many defense experts agree Fallon’s first priority must be to ensure violence in Iraq and Afghanistan does not escalate outside national boundaries and expand into regional war, which would greatly complicate the strategic picture.

“It’s very clear to me that if you’ve got a house on fire [in Iraq], you need to do whatever it takes to get the fire out, particularly given that the neighborhood is particularly volatile,” Fallon said in last month’s interview. “Doesn’t it make sense that you would do virtually whatever you have to do to deal with this problem?”

If so, the admiral must set out early to “work the neighborhood,” in the words of one Middle East expert. That means coaxing Persian Gulf leaders who did not support the war to now accept -- or even help promote -- U.S. objectives in pacifying Iraq. A broader war could destabilize the entire region, in the view of geopolitical experts.

But to Fallon, talking remains only a first, if crucial, step.

Advancing security and stability in the region means “acting the junkyard dog in holding people accountable to produce results,” he told ITP. “This is what we need.”

Who, in particular, must be held to account?

“Most importantly, it is about holding myself [accountable], as well as those we can influence; subordinates; associates; [and] anyone who has an interest in the issue,” Fallon said. “And that’s a lot of people.”

—Elaine M. Grossman

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