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."

It is thus undeniable that as commander of CENTCOM, Fallon acted in a way that exceeded his authority. The tenor of Fallon's public pronouncements was in stark contrast to that of statements made by other high-ranking military officers who, while they have no desire to provoke a war with Iran while the U.S. military is heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, have not taken it upon themselves to constrain American foreign policy to the extent that Fallon has. Indeed, had Fallon not stepped down, the president would have been perfectly justified in firing him, as Abraham Lincoln fired Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, as Franklin Roosevelt fired Rear Admiral James O. Richardson, and Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Let us be clear. The problem wasn't that Fallon was merely "pushing back" within the administration against a policy he didn't like. The problem was that a uniformed officer was actively working to undermine that policy after the decision had been made--and that he was also speaking out against the policy publicly while being charged with executing it. The playing field is not level for commanders speaking in public. They have a responsibility to support the missions they've been given, not to publicly evaluate the wisdom of the policy because, among other things, such a public evaluation undermines the confidence of their subordinates as they go into battle. This is unacceptable.

In our politicized world, one's response to this affair is likely to be colored by one's attitude toward the defense and foreign policies of the Bush administration. Those who normally would reject the idea that a military officer should "insist" that elected officials or their constitutional appointees adopt the officer's position seem to be all for it when it comes to the Bush administration. For instance, in a March 2005 column for the Washington Post handicapping the field to succeed Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, David Ignatius argued that "the next [CJCS] must be someone who can push back" against Rumsfeld. But those who see Fallon as a hero for "pushing back" against George Bush should realize that someday a President Barack Obama might have to deal with a future combatant commander who is publicly undermining his policies, as Fallon was undermining those of President Bush.

The cornerstone of U.S. civil-military relations is simple and straightforward: The uniformed military is expected to provide its best advice to civil authorities, who alone are responsible for policy. While reasonable people can disagree over the wisdom of military action against Iran or any other adversary, the decision to take such action lies with civilian authorities, not with a military commander.

Of course, uniformed officers have an obligation to stand up to civilian leaders if they think a policy is flawed. They must convey their concerns to civilian policymakers forcefully and truthfully. If they believe the door is closed to them at the Pentagon or the White House, they also have access to Congress. But once a policy decision is made, soldiers are obligated to carry it out to the best of their ability, whether their advice is heeded or not.

Most American military commanders have gotten this. For instance, according to Dana Priest's book The Mission, the Clinton White House wanted U.S. pilots in the no-fly zone to provoke the Iraqis into attacking American planes. The then-CENTCOM commander, General Anthony Zinni, believed that this could lead to war with Iraq and insisted that the White House issue him a direct order to undertake such an action. Faced with leaving a paper trail, the White House changed its mind.

But others, e.g. George McClellan, Douglas MacArthur, and now Adm. Fallon, have chosen to publicly "push back" against policies with which they disagree. In doing so, they pose a danger to republican government. The danger is illustrated by the case of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan during the American Civil War.

Military historians tend to treat McClellan as a first-rate organizer, equipper, and trainer but an incompetent general who was constantly outfought and outgeneraled by his Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee. That much is true, but there is more to the story. McClellan and many of his favored subordinates disagreed with many of Lincoln's policies, and indeed may have attempted to sabotage them. McClellan pursued the war he wanted to fight-one that would end in a negotiated peace-rather than the one his commander in chief wanted him to fight. The behavior of McClellan and his subordinates led Lincoln to worry that his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation might trigger a military coup.

McClellan openly expressed his disdain for the president and the secretary of War. Lincoln and his cabinet were aware of the rumors that McClellan intended to put "his sword across the government's policy." McClellan's quartermaster-general, Montgomery Meigs expressed concern about "officers of rank" in the Army of the Potomac who spoke openly of "a march on Washington to 'clear out those fellows.'"

That McClellan had his own idea for fighting the war, one that did not match that of his commander in chief, was revealed by one of his officers after the Maryland Campaign of September 1862. In response to a query from a colleague as to "why the rebel army [was not] bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg [Antietam]," the officer replied "that is not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery."

Lincoln dismissed the officer in question, remarking to his secretary John Hay "that if there was a 'game' ever among Union men, to have our army not take an advantage of the enemy when it could, it was his object to break up that game." Shortly thereafter, Lincoln relieved McClellan himself after another long bout of inactivity following Antietam. Of course President Harry Truman took the same action against Gen. MacArthur, an officer who had taken his disagreements with the president public.

A public disagreement between a president and his military commanders is one thing. But even a private disagreement can cause a commander in
chief to lose confidence in his subordinates. For instance, when
President Franklin Roosevelt decided to attempt to deter Japanese
expansionism by moving the US Pacific Fleet from California to Pearl
Harbor during the summer of 1940, the fleet commander, Rear Admiral
James O. Richardson, objected, arguing that basing the Pacific Fleet in
Hawaii was provocative and could precipitate a war with Japan. The
president fired him and replaced him with Rear Admiral Husband E.
Kimmel. As Admiral Harold Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations, wrote to
Kimmel after the affair, "This, of course, is White House prerogative
and responsibility, and believe me, it is used these days." To his
credit Richardson kept his objections to FDR's decision private and went
quietly into retirement.

By contradicting the president in public, Fallon clearly exceeded his authority. Had he not chosen to step down, the president would have been obliged to fire him, not least because of the serious threat to balanced civil-military relations that his actions--like McClellan's before him--constituted.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.