The Washington Times - March 11, 2008, 04:04PM
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White House

So while 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.”

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…How does Fallon get away with so brazenly challenging his commander in chief?

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The answer is that he might not get away with it for much longer. President Bush is not accustomed to a subordinate who speaks his mind as freely as Fallon does, and the president may have had enough.

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Just as Fallon took over Centcom last spring, the White House was putting itself on a war footing with Iran. Almost instantly, Fallon began to calmly push back against what he saw as an ill-advised action. Over the course of 2007, Fallon’s statements in the press grew increasingly dismissive of the possibility of war, creating serious friction with the White House.

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Last December, when the National Intelligence Estimate downgraded the immediate nuclear threat from Iran, it seemed as if Fallon’s caution was justified. But still, well-placed observers now say that it will come as no surprise if Fallon is relieved of his command before his time is up next spring, maybe as early as this summer, in favor of a commander the White House considers to be more pliable. If that were to happen, it may well mean that the president and vice-president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year and don’t want a commander standing in their way.

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And so Fallon, the good cop, may soon be unemployed because he’s doing what a generation of young officers in the U. S. military are now openly complaining that their leaders didn’t do on their behalf in the run-up to the war in Iraq: He’s standing up to the commander in chief, whom he thinks is contemplating a strategically unsound war.

It’s late November in smoggy, car-infested Cairo, and I’m standing in the front lobby of a rather ornate “infantry officers club” on the outskirts of the old town center. Central Command’s just finished its large, biannual regional exercise called Bright Star, and today Egypt’s army is hosting a “senior leadership seminar” for all the attending generals. It’s the barroom scene from Star Wars, with more national uniforms than I can count.

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Judging by Fallon’s grimace as his official party passes, I can tell that the cover story in this morning’s Egyptian Gazette landed hard on somebody’s desk at the White House. U.S. RULES OUT STRIKE AGAINST IRAN, read the banner headline, and the accompanying photo showed Fallon in deep consultation with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

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Fallon sidles up to me during a morning coffee break. “I’m in hot water again,” he says.

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“The White House?”

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The admiral slowly nods his head.

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“They say, ‘Why are you even meeting with Mubarak?’ ” This seems to utterly mystify Fallon.

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“Why?” he says, shrugging with palms extending outward. “Because it’s my job to deal with this region, and it’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. Washington interprets this as all aimed at them. Instead, it’s aimed at governments and media in this region. I’m not talking about the White House.” He points to the ground, getting exercised. “This is my center of gravity. This is my job.”

here— Jon Ward, White House correspondent, The Washington Times