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Column | David Ignatius

Blunt talk was Fallon's undoing

The outspoken Adm. William Fallon retired this week as head of U.S. Central Command.

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The outspoken Adm. William Fallon retired this week as head of U.S. Central Command.

WASHINGTON — The first thing that many of Adm. William Fallon's colleagues note about him is that he's a Navy officer. By that, they mean he has the stubborn self-confidence, some would say arrogance, that is part of command at sea. He knows how to wear his dress whites and receive a snappy salute — and he likes telling people off when he thinks they're wrong.

Those headstrong qualities were part of why Fallon was chosen to run Central Command, arguably the most important +senior post in the U.S. military.

And they explain why Fallon finally crashed and burned Tuesday, tendering his resignation after his blunt comments to an Esquire magazine writer had gotten him into one too many conflicts with the White House and the military brass.

The stories about Fallon's resignation focused mostly on his rejection of administration saber-rattling on Iran. "I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for," he told Al-Jazeera last fall when the war fever was high. But there's less of a gap between Fallon and the administration on Iran than those comments suggested. Top administration officials have made clear for months that they know there isn't a good U.S. military option against Iran.

Fallon's problems were less dramatic — but they go to the heart of what America should want from its senior military leaders. After what many viewed as the overly deferential style of the two previous chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House decided to go for something different in a senior commander — a guy with a mouth that could peel the paint off the walls.

I have traveled with Fallon several times since he became CentCom commander, and have talked at length with him, so perhaps I can offer a glimpse into the flap over his premature retirement.

Fallon's early friction was with Gen. David Petraeus, whom President Bush had trusted with the implementation of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. The CentCom chief bristled at his nominal subordinate's close relationship with the White House, and it made for an awkward chain of command.

The tension was evident in May when I traveled to Baghdad with Fallon. He brought me into all his meetings with Iraqi officials. Those fractious discussions reinforced Fallon's worry that the troop surge, while clearly improving Iraqi security, wasn't creating the space for a national political reconciliation.

In a May 15 piece from Baghdad, I quoted an upbeat Petraeus: "How long does reconciliation take? That's the long pole in the tent." I asked Fallon if he had an assessment of his own, and here's what he said, specifically rebutting Petraeus: "We're chipping away at the problem. But we don't have the time to chip away. Reconciliation isn't likely in the time we have available, but some form of accommodation is a must."

By last fall, it was clear to Fallon that the key issue was the pace of U.S. withdrawal. If the surge strategy was "conditions-based," and the surge was going well, Fallon wondered, why weren't we moving for a faster timetable?

After we discussed this issue at the Pentagon, I quoted Fallon in October saying he was pushing Petraeus on "whether there is a way to take more of the support force out" on a quicker timetable."

A final Fallon indiscretion was talking while we were in Iraq about whether there should be a pause in the withdrawal of U.S. troops this summer, as Petraeus and Bush wanted. He favored a pause, but not one so lengthy that it obscured the message to Iraqis and Americans that the U.S. military forces were on their way out.

I understand the White House's desire for an orderly chain of command, and the need for military officers to trust each other's discretion. But in the case of Fallon, I see a lot of good that came from having a headstrong blowtorch of a man speaking truth to power.

David Ignatius' e-mail address is davidignatius@

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Blunt talk was Fallon's undoing 03/13/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2008 11:20pm]
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