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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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.