A new article on CENTCOM commander Adm. William
Fallon confirms that his public statements last fall ruling out war against
Iran last fall were not coordinated with the White House and landed him in trouble
more than once with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
In an admiring article
on Fallon in Esquire, former Pentagon official Thomas P.M. Barnett
writes that Fallon angered the White House by "brazenly challenging"
Bush on his aggressive threat of war against Tehran. Barnett also cites "well-placed
observers" as saying Bush may soon replace Fallon with a "more pliable"
Barnett's account, which quotes conversations with Fallon during the CENTCOM
commander's trips to the Middle East, shows that Fallon privately justified
his statements contradicting the Bush policy of keeping the "option"
of an unprovoked attack on Iran "on the table" as necessary to calm
the fears of Egypt and other friendly Arab regimes of a US-Iran war.
Barnett recalls that when Fallon was in Cairo in November, the lead story in
that day's edition of the English-language daily Egyptian Gazette carried
the headline "US Rules Out Strike against Iran" over a picture of
Fallon meeting with President Hosni Mubarak.
That story, published Nov. 19 and not picked up by any US news media, reported
that Fallon had "ruled out a possible strike against Iran and said Washington
was mulling nonmilitary options instead."
Later that day, according to Barnett, Fallon told him during a coffee break
in a military meeting, "I'm in hot water again," and then confirmed
that his problems were directly with the White House.
That was the second time in less than a week and the third time in seven weeks
that Fallon had publicly declared that there would be no war against Iran. In
an interview with Al-Jazeera television in September, which Fallon himself had
requested, according to a source at Al-Jazeera, he had said, "This constant
drum beat of conflict is what strikes me which is not helpful and not useful."
And only a week before the trip to Egypt, in an interview with Financial
Times, Fallon had said, a military strike was not "in the offing,"
adding, "Another war is just not where we want to go."
These statements represented an extraordinary exercise of power by a combat
commander, because it contradicted a central feature of the Bush-Cheney strategy
on Iran. High-ranking Bush administration officials had been routinely repeating
the administration's line that no option had been taken "off the table"
since early 2005.
At an Oct. 17 news conference, Bush said he had "told people that if you're
interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested
in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
Fallon's public statements explicitly ruling out an attack on Iran thus undermined
the Bush administration's threat against Iran.
The willingness of the top commander in the Middle East to take the military
option "off the table" was in part a reflection of the determination
of uniformed military leaders to prevent what they regarded as a disastrous
The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who replaced
Gen. Peter Pace in June, was even more candid about his opposition to the use
of force against Iran than Pace had been, according to a Congressional staffer
who had participated in private meetings with both. Pace declared publicly in
late October, "We have to be mindful of the risks that would [be spawned]
by engaging in a third conflict" in the region.
Mullen added, however, that military options "cannot be taken off the
But Fallon, as the commander responsible for the entire Middle East, was concerned
about more than the consequences of actually exercising the military option.
He was prompted to enunciate a "no-war" line on Iran by the panicky
reactions of Arab states to what they thought were indications of the warlike
intentions of Bush administration.
In the latter half of 2007 friendly Arab regimes were upset by the possibility
of a US-Iran war, which they feared would destabilize the entire region. Fallon
is quoted as telling Barnett, "[I]t's all anyone wants to talk about right
now. People here hear what I'm saying and understand. I don't want to get them
too spun up."
Fallon told Barnett that his ruling out of military action against Iran was
necessary to calm the very regimes the Bush administration was hoping to enlist
to support its anti-Iran line. "Washington interprets this as all aimed
at them," Fallon said in Cairo, according to Barnett. "Instead, it's
aimed at governments and media in this region. I'm not talking about the White
Fallon was arguing, in effect, that it makes no sense to make the possibility
of an unprovoked attack part of your declaratory policy if merely induces confusion
and panic among friendly governments without influencing the target of the threat.
Barnett quotes Fallon as complaining that "they" meaning White
House officials were asking him, "Why are you even meeting with Mubarak?"
But Fallon strongly defended the diplomatic role he was playing in relations
with Mubarak and other Middle Eastern leaders. "This is my center of gravity,"
Fallon told him. "This is my job."
Fallon's sensitivity to the political-diplomatic consequences of a declaratory
policy that explicitly keeps open the threat of an aggressive war as a potential
option set him apart not only from the White House but from the consensus among
national security specialists in both parties. In early 2007, all three of the
top three Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination publicly declared
their support for keeping "all options on the table."
Fallon is not the first CENTCOM commander to rein in aggressive White House
policy toward the Middle East. In late 1997, according to Dana Priest's book,
Mission, the Bill Clinton White House wanted CENTCOM commander Gen.
Anthony Zinni to order his pilots to provoke a military confrontation with Iraq
in the no-fly zone by deliberately drawing fire from Iraqi planes.
The request for such a provocation was conveyed to Zinni by the vice chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Ralston. But Zinni, who believed that
it could lead to an unwanted war with Iraq, insisted that a formal request from
the White House would have to be sent, and the plan was dropped.
The unhappiness of the Bush administration with Fallon's role as well as the
unflattering picture of administration policy revealed by the article was evident
Thursday from the failure of either the White House or the Pentagon to issue
the usual reassuring statements in response to the article.
The White House declined to comment, although, according to the Washington
Post's Thomas Ricks, the article "was being discussed there."
The Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
"has read the profile on Admiral Fallon but chooses not to comment on it
or other press accounts."
(Inter Press Service)