WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon sharks are circling CENTCOM Commander Adm. William "Fox" Fallon for a magazine interview in which he appears to openly criticize President Bush on the administration's Iran policy. The very public comments raised speculation Fallon would either volunteer or be forced to resign.
Defense Secretary William Gates announced Tuesday that
Fallon is stepping down as head of U.S. Central Command. He said Fallon
took the decision because he felt the statements attributed to him
created a misperception about his goals and those of President Bush.
The current issue of Esquire Magazine portrays Fallon as the one person in the military or Pentagon standing between the White House and war with Iran. The article credits Fallon with "brazenly challenging his commander in chief" over a possible war with Iran, which Fallon called an "ill-advised action," and implies Fallon would resign rather than go to war against Iran.
Asked on Monday whether Gates still has full confidence in Fallon, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell would only say that Fallon "still enjoys a working – a good working relationship with the Secretary of Defense."
Although reporters did not specifically ask about a possible Fallon resignation, Morrell freely offered, "Admiral Fallon serves at the pleasure of the president." That's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but far from a political death knell.
Still, the gruff, outspoken CENTCOM commander has his detractors. "How many times can [Fallon] get away with these kinds of remarks," before he's forced out the door, asked one senior Pentagon official. The reason may be that on Iran, Gates and many senior military officials happen to agree with Fallon.
Most military leaders against military strike on Iran
Gates has said publicly and privately that under current conditions he's opposed to war with Iran. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen is also against it. In fact, almost every senior military officer we've talked to is against launching military strikes against Iran, because as one senior official told us, "then what do you do?"
While the U.S. military does have the usual contingency plans for robust airstrikes against Iranian nuclear and military targets, it's the "aftermath, stupid." It's the potential military response from Iran in the region and repercussions in global oil markets that are incalculable.
In addition, military officials dispute the premise of the story that the White House is pressuring the military to go to war with Iran. "Not true," said a senior military official, despite the anti-Iran drumbeat from Vice President Dick Cheney.
In fact, during a conference in Bahrain last December, Gates had to convince Gulf state Arab allies that the United States was not going soft on Iran, because from their vantage point it appeared the Bush administration was backing away from its tough stand against Iran.
But even then, Gates was pushing for a new Gulf state military alliance, along with the U.S. to establish a coordinated regional strategic defense against Iran, not attack it. As always, the U.S. would never take the "military option" off the table in case conditions should change and Iran posed a threat to the U.S. or its allies in the region.
'Poison pen stuff'
Sources in the Pentagon said Fallon was worried the White House would perceive the magazine piece as a challenge to the president's authority, and insisted that couldn't be further from the truth. At the same time the sources said Fallon "doesn't sound like someone considering resignation."
In his own defense, Fallon told the Washington Post that the Esquire article was "poison pen stuff...disrespectful and ugly."
While any policy differences, real or perceived, between top U.S. military commanders and the civilian leadership are not necessarily unusual, it's rare when those commanders take the debate so public.