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MIDDLE EAST: Fallon’s fall highlights debate over U.S. policy on Iran

March 12, 2008 | 12:59 pm

Mapmideast

Just days after a controversial article in Esquire magazine described Adm. William J. Fallon as the man standing in the way of a Bush administration war against Iran, he resigned his post, most likely under White House pressure, leaving as commander of Florida-based U.S. Central Command, or Centcom, and all U.S. military operations in the Middle East, Central Asia and Northeast Africa more than a year early.

FallonIran wasn’t the only point of contention between Fallon (right) and the rest of the Bush administration. As Los Angeles Times Pentagon reporters Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel point out in Wednesday’s paper, Fallon seemed to oppose the U.S. strategy in Iraq, as well:

Supporters of the administration's troop buildup have criticized Fallon for pushing for an accelerated reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq. By doing so, they argued, Fallon undermined the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. "He fought Petraeus every step of the way, creating unrealistic demands and extra work," said a former senior Pentagon official who has worked directly with both men. "And in so doing, he was not only undermining Petraeus, he was failing to support the president's policy."

But, it was Fallon's words on Iran policy that riled neoconservative White House and Beltway hawks. The Esquire article describes the conflict over Iran policy as a Manichaean fight between a Bush administration hellbent on confrontation and a Fallon equally determined to cool down tensions:

[W]hile Admiral Fallon's boss, President George W. Bush, regularly trash-talks his way to World War III and his administration casually casts Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as this century's Hitler (a crown it has awarded once before, to deadly effect), it's left to Fallon — and apparently Fallon alone — to argue that, as he told Al Jazeera last fall: "This constant drumbeat of conflict ... is not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for. We ought to try to do our utmost to create different conditions." What America needs, Fallon says, is a "combination of strength and willingness to engage."

And as Washington reporter Gareth Porter points out in a piece for the online Asia Times, Fallon's opposition to Iran policy wasn't just rhetorical. It meant hardware wasn't positioned in key places on the geopolitical map at key times:

Even before assuming his new post at CENTCOM, Fallon expressed strong opposition in mid-February to a proposal for sending a third US aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, to overlap with two other carriers, according to knowledgeable sources. The addition of a third carrier was to be part of a broader strategy then being discussed at the Pentagon to intimidate Iran by making a series of military moves suggesting preparations for a military strike. The plan for a third carrier task force in the Gulf was dropped after Fallon made his views known.

Dempsey1Fallon will be replaced at least for now by his deputy, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey (right), who served twice in Iraq.

Neoconservatives celebrated Fallon's departure. Max Boot was the foreign policy pundit who labeled Fallon as "unimpressive" in January this year. In an opinion piece in Wednesday's L.A. Times, he argues that Fallon just didn't get it, with regard to Iran:

Fallon's very public assurances that America has no plans to use force against Iran embolden the mullahs to continue developing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorist groups that are killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.... By irresponsibly taking the option of force off the table, Fallon makes it more likely, not less, that there will ultimately be an armed confrontation with Iran.

But the story may not end here. Lawmakers are already calling for investigations into Fallon's departure.

And, of course, more likely than not, Fallon's got a tell-all book in the works, as with so many other ex-administration officials.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photos: From top, Centcom's area of operations stretches from Central Asia through the Middle East to the Horn of Africa; Fallon; Dempsey. Credit: Centcom website

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