The Blog

The Fall of Admiral
George B. McFallon

By contradicting the president in public, Admiral Fallon exceeded his authority--and was right to step down.

1:30 PM, Mar 12, 2008 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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DURING THE 1990s, a number of events led observers to conclude that all was not well with civil-military relations in America, generating an often acrimonious public debate in which a number of highly respected observers concluded that American civil-military relations had become unhealthy or even that they were "in crisis." Nothing was more illustrative of the lack of comity in civil-military relations during this period than the unprecedented instances of downright hostility on the part of the uniformed military toward President Bill Clinton, whose anti-military stance as a young man during the Vietnam War years did not endear him to soldiers.

Some observers contended that the civil-military tensions of the 1990s were a temporary phenomenon, attributable to the perceived anti-military character of the Clinton administration. But the tensions did not disappear with the election and reelection of George W. Bush. If anything, civil-military relations became more strained as a result of clashes between the uniformed services and Bush's first secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, over efforts to "transform" the military from a Cold War force to one better able to respond to likely future contingencies and the planning and conduct of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was highlighted by the so-called revolt of the generals in the spring of 2006, which saw a number of retired Army and Marine generals publicly call for the resignation of Secretary Rumsfeld, criticizing him in language that was intemperate, if not downright contemptuous.

With Rumsfeld's departure and the apparent success of the "surge" in Iraq, some expressed hope that harmony might return to U.S. civil-military relations. But as the case of Admiral William "Fox" Fallon illustrates, the state of civil-military relations remains turbulent.

On March 11, Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM)--a regional combatant command that includes Iraq and Iran-stepped down from his post, offering as his reason the public "misperception" that he had disagreed with the Bush administration over policy in the Middle East, especially with regard to Iran. In a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Fallon wrote that "The current embarrassing situation and public perception of differences between my views and administration policy and the distraction this causes from the mission make this the right thing to do."

The proximate cause of Fallon's departure was an article by Thomas Barnett in the April issue of Esquire. Entitled "The Man Between War and Peace," the piece begins: "As head of U.S. Central Command, Admiral William 'Fox' Fallon is in charge of American military strategy for the most troubled parts of the world. Now, as the White House has been escalating the war of words with Iran, and seeming ever more determined to strike militarily before the end of this presidency, the admiral has urged restraint and diplomacy. Who will prevail, the president or the admiral?"

Barnett's rather fawning profile of Fallon portrays the latter as "brazenly challenging" President Bush on Iran, pushing back "against what he saw as an ill-advised action." While reasonable people can disagree over the wisdom of the Bush administration's policy regarding Iraq, the really troubling aspect of this article is that it reveals the extent to which a combatant commander had taken it on himself to develop and disseminate policy independently of the president. This flies in the face of the American practice of civil-military relations, going back to the American Revolution.

The differences between Fallon and the administration were real, not the result of any misperception. It is well established that Fallon worked to undermine the "surge" in Iraq by pushing for faster troop reductions than the commander on the ground in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, thought prudent. He attempted to banish the phrase "the Long War" because, according to Barnett, it "signaled a long haul that Fallon simply finds unacceptable."

Regarding Iran, Fallon undercut the cornerstone of the Bush administration's Iran policy of keeping all options-including the use of military force-open, in order to pressure Iran to forgo its nuclear ambitions. This makes diplomatic sense. As Frederick the Great once observed, diplomacy without force is like music without instruments.

But last fall, Fallon told Al Jazeera TV, "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." A week before a trip to Egypt in November of last year, Fallon told the Financial Times, that a military strike against Iran was not "in the offing. Another war is just not where we want to go."