- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

USS Theodore Roosevelt, Norfolk.

In what was curiously billed as a “transition ceremony” in honor of Adm. William J. (“Fox”) Fallon, after 41 years of distinguished service to his nation, this very able sailor was piped over the side for the last time on Friday. The hugely attended event took place fittingly from the very flight deck from which Adm. Fallon had flown many missions and on which he had experienced five earlier changes of command. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, wryly explained to the audience that this was probably the only ship in the Navy still in service in which Adm. Fallon, literally “the old salt,” had served.

After barely a year in command of U.S. Central Command, remarkably his fourth assignment as a four-star admiral, Adm. Fallon abruptly and surprisingly requested retirement last month. The question was did he jump or was he pushed out of his job. Known for being tough, demanding and intolerant of sub-par performance, Adm. Fallon always dealt in straight, unvarnished talk.

Had he done this once too often? Or was his strategic view of the world so at odds with the administration he served, that Adm. Fallon had little choice except to leave the service he had so much loved? After all, this was not 60 years ago when then-Secretary of State George Marshall, a general, could profoundly disagree with President Harry Truman’s decision to recognize Israel and still stay on.

The apparent cause celebre for Adm.Fallon’s departure was an article in the March edition of Esquire magazine by Tom Barnett. In it, Mr. Barnett wrote that Adm. Fallon had “brazenly” challenged President Bush over Iran and was the one man standing between war and peace in the region. Some suggested Adm. Fallon had exercised poor judgment in trusting Mr. Barnett, a former Naval War College instructor turned self-promoting policy wonk, with such access. Others accused the admiral of insubordination.

Mr. Barnett was dead wrong. One admiral does stand between war and peace. However, that admiral was Adm. Fallon’s superior, Adm. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the senior military adviser to the president. And no senior officer “brazenly challenges” any president, especially one with Adm. Fallon’s experience and skill.

Make no mistake. Adm. Fallon was and is intellectually and operationally aggressive. He rarely pulled any punches, remarking that if one had not made enemies along the way, they were not doing their job. That sort of candor does not automatically make converts or admirers. Perhaps because of those qualities, newly appointed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates persisted last year in convincing the admiral to give up the post of Commander Pacific Command and move instead to Central Command to oversee the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this new post, Adm. Fallon brought with him his experiences in the Pacific, particularly with China and North Korea, and a strategic appreciation honed by service from Vietnam to the war on terror. He became troubled over the highly negative and draining effects of both wars on America’s military and on U.S. standing and credibility in the region and where that policy could be headed.

Adm. Fallon also understood that Iran need not be contained only by military force. As the U.S. had worked with China, Japan and others over reversing North Korean nuclear programs, that approach could be tried in the Gulf. Here Adm. Fallon represented the views of many senior military officers that run contrary to those of a White House unwilling to undertake serious diplomatic initiatives with Iran.

And there another is a long-standing reality: Civilian leadership is often fickle when it comes to military advice. While President Bush says he relies on Gen. David Petraeus’ assessments on Iraq — and Gen. Petraeus was under Adm. Fallon’s command — before the invasion of Iraq, former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki was effectively dismissed a year prior to his retirement for admitting to the Senate that far more troops would be needed for the post-war period. And knowing Adm. Fallon, unlike Gen. Shinseki, who after all had an army to run, he was not someone to soldier on in the midst of two conflicts in which Americans were fighting and dying if his advice was not heeded.

The Bush White House has constantly advised subordinates to “stay in your lane,” meaning the White House and not the individual departments will integrate and coordinate policy. Unfortunately, that integration has been absent without leave for more than seven years. And this is a White House in which dissent and desertion of the party line warrant a political death sentence.

Adm. Fallon fell afoul of these realities. While Adm. Fallon may have jumped, no doubt the differences in strategic views combined with a tough-minded approach to his job precipitated his departure. ‘Tis a pity. The Fox will be missed.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.


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