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Muddling Along in the Middle East
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 3/14/08

When Adm. William “Fox” Fallon was appointed to replace Gen. John Abizaid as Commander U.S. Central Command barely a year ago, many wondered why a naval officer was chosen for a command whose area of responsibility includes the Middle East and the two major areas of current U.S. ground combat operations, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some speculated that Fallon’s carrier aviation background signaled an imminent war with Iran with naval air playing a leading role.

Military appointments at this level, however, involve far more than the color of one’s uniform or his primary warfare specialty. Fallon did not have the ability to converse in Arabic nor did he have the background in the culture of the area that his predecessor brought to the job but he did bring extensive experience in running the Pacific Command, the largest military command of all, comprising about half the globe. Among his many accomplishments there was to contribute to improving relations with China. He had a reputation for being able to make friends for the United States and we certainly could use a few more friends in the Middle East, so he was recruited for the job by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

Adm. Fallon’s scowl can be intimidating but he is soft spoken and calm, characteristics useful in jobs like these that involve daily contacts with not just military leaders but heads of state and senior diplomats, not all of whom like one another much or the United States at all, for that matter. He also has a reputation for candor and outspokenness and a readiness to express disagreement with a policy if he believes it to be mistaken. We should search out such men for they are rare. Many senior military officers have, at one time or another, struggled with deep-seated reservations over policies they were ordered to carry out. Most find a way to go along, arguing that it’s best to survive to fight another day. Some nurse their criticisms until retirement when they carry much less impact and tend to be written off as sour grapes.  Adm. Fallon was not one of these.  

Fallon resigned after an article in Esquire by former U.S. Naval War College professor Thomas P. M. Barnett appeared, containing comments critical of administration policy in the region. Most of the differences were not new. His cautions regarding the dangers of a rush to war with Iran were well known and he had expressed concerns about delaying the drawdown in Iraq after the successful surge. But he said that such widely reported disagreements were a distraction and so he did the honorable thing that a principled leader must do under the circumstances. He tendered his resignation which reportedly was eagerly accepted by those formerly eager to recruit him.  

The Wall Street Journal spoke of a “fateful debate” ongoing at the Pentagon that will determine the pace of military withdrawal for the remainder of President Bush’s term with Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, Army Chief of Staff George Casey and Fallon reportedly favoring deeper cuts beyond the surge forces already scheduled for redeployment. The Journal wants Mr. Bush to assert himself in this matter and criticized his “excessive deference” to the Army’s “pecking order”. Adm. Fallon, the paper’s lead editorial said, “has made enough dissenting statements about Iraq, Iran and other things to warrant his dismissal as much as early retirement.” (His retirement, after more than four decades of active duty would hardly be early.) His departure, moreover, “would be especially good news if it means that President Bush is beginning to pay attention to the internal Pentagon dispute over Iraq.”

I am in frequent agreement with the Journal’s editorial positions but the armchair generals on the editorial board are way off on this. It was a cheap and unwarranted shot at a distinguished leader and one of the best strategic military minds still on active duty. He didn’t volunteer for this assignment; he was chosen for the very characteristics, including candor and integrity, which he continued to display in his final assignment. His assignment put him in nominal charge of the hero of the surge, Gen. David Petraeus who has the president’s ear as the man at the center of the action. The two reportedly disagreed on the timing of the post-surge drawdown. Fallon’s responsibilities, of course, are broader and arguably more critical extending far beyond Iraq. They include Afghanistan, Pakistan and the rest of the mess that is the Middle East. These perpetual crises will remain whether or not Iraq is able to ever stand on its own two feet.

Fallon was opposed to excessive focus on any one particular area or target, be it Iraq, Iran or al Qaeda. He was especially critical of the excessive talk of war with Iran. He favored speaking softly but firmly and carrying a very big stick.  He is quoted in the Esquire article as saying that “with five or six pots boiling over (in the Middle East) our nation can’t afford to be mesmerized by one problem.” He’s right and with five or six pots boiling over we need a larger Army and Marine Corps.

Fallon’s departure has raised again the issue of loyal dissent and even the role of retired senior military officers in politics. There really shouldn’t be any debate at all regarding the latter. Retired military officers have the same right to participate in the political process as other citizens. Being willing to offer informed criticism while still in uniform, however, takes somewhat more courage and leadership. We should be grateful for leaders like Adm. Fallon. May he encounter fair winds and following seas while this lame duck administration continues to muddle along in search of a consistent policy in the Middle East. Fallon could have helped provide some intelligent continuity, if given more time. CRO

copyright 2008 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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