WASHINGTON -- A new article on CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon confirms that his public statements last fall ruling out war against Iran last fall were not coordinated with the White House and landed him in trouble more than once with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
In an admiring article on Fallon in Esquire, former Pentagon official Thomas P.M. Barnett writes that Fallon angered the White House by "brazenly challenging" Bush on his aggressive threat of war against Tehran. Barnett also cites "well-placed observers" as saying Bush may soon replace Fallon with a "more pliable" commander.
Barnett's account, which quotes conversations with Fallon during the CENTCOM commander's trips to the Middle East, shows that Fallon privately justified his statements contradicting the Bush policy of keeping the "option" of an unprovoked attack on Iran "on the table" as necessary to calm the fears of Egypt and other friendly Arab regimes of a U.S.-Iran war.
Barnett recalls that when Fallon was in Cairo in November, the lead story in that day's edition of the English-language daily Egyptian Gazette carried the headline "U.S. Rules Out Strike against Iran" over a picture of Fallon meeting with President Hosni Mubarak.
That story, published Nov. 19 and not picked up by any U.S. news media, reported that Fallon had "ruled out a possible strike against Iran and said Washington was mulling non-military options instead."
Later that day, according to Barnett, Fallon told him during a coffee break in a military meeting, "I'm in hot water again," and then confirmed that his problems were directly with the White House.
That was the second time in less than a week and the third time in seven weeks that Fallon had publicly declared that there would be no war against Iran. In an interview with Al-Jazeera television in September, which Fallon himself had requested, according to a source at Al-Jazeera, he had said, "This constant drum beat of conflict is what strikes me which is not helpful and not useful".
And only a week before the trip to Egypt, in an interview with Financial Times, Fallon had said, a military strike was not "in the offing", adding, "Another war is just not where we want to go."
These statements represented an extraordinary exercise of power by a combat commander, because it contradicted a central feature of the Bush-Cheney strategy on Iran. High-ranking Bush administration officials had been routinely repeating the administration's line that no option had been taken "off the table" since early 2005.
At an Oct. 17 news conference, Bush said he had "told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
Fallon's public statements explicitly ruling out an attack on Iran thus undermined the Bush administration's threat against Iran.
The willingness of the top commander in the Middle East to take the military option "off the table" was in part a reflection of the determination of uniformed military leaders to prevent what they regarded as a disastrous course.
The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who replaced Gen. Peter Pace in June, was even more candid about his opposition to the use of force against Iran than Pace had been, according to a Congressional staffer who had participated in private meetings with both. Pace declared publicly in late October, "We have to be mindful of the risks that would [be spawned] by engaging in a third conflict" in the region.
Mullen added, however, that military options "cannot be taken off the table".
But Fallon, as the commander responsible for the entire Middle East, was concerned about more than the consequences of actually exercising the military option. He was prompted to enunciate a "no-war" line on Iran by the panicky reactions of Arab states to what they thought were indications of the warlike intentions of Bush administration.
In the latter half of 2007 friendly Arab regimes were upset by the possibility of a U.S.-Iran war, which they feared would destabilise the entire region. Fallon is quoted as telling Barnett, "[I]t's all anyone wants to talk about right now. People here hear what I'm saying and understand. I don't want to get them too spun up."
Fallon told Barnett that his ruling out of military action against Iran was necessary to calm the very regimes the Bush administration was hoping to enlist to support its anti-Iran line. "Washington interprets this as all aimed at them," Fallon said in Cairo, according to Barnett. "Instead, it's aimed at governments and media in this region. I'm not talking about the White House."
Fallon was arguing, in effect, that it makes no sense to make the possibility of an unprovoked attack part of your declaratory policy if merely induces confusion and panic among friendly governments without influencing the target of the threat.
Barnett quotes Fallon as complaining that "they" -- meaning White House officials -- were asking him, "Why are you even meeting with Mubarak?" But Fallon strongly defended the diplomatic role he was playing in relations with Mubarak and other Middle Eastern leaders. "This is my centre of gravity," Fallon told him. "This is my job."
Fallon's sensitivity to the political-diplomatic consequences of a declaratory policy that explicitly keeps open the threat of an aggressive war as a potential option set him apart not only the White House but from the consensus among national security specialists in both parties. In early 2007, all three of the top three Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination publicly declared their support for keeping "all options on the table".
Fallon is not the first CENTCOM commander to rein in aggressive White House policy toward the Middle East. In late 1997, according to Dana Priest's book, "The Mission", the Bill Clinton White House wanted CENTCOM commander Gen. Anthony Zinni to order his pilots to provoke a military confrontation with Iraq in the no-fly zone by deliberately drawing fire from Iraqi planes.
The request for such a provocation was conveyed to Zinni by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Ralston. But Zinni, who believed that it could lead to an unwanted war with Iraq, insisted that a formal request from the White House would have to be sent, and the plan was dropped.
The unhappiness of the Bush administration with Fallon's role as well as the unflattering picture of administration policy revealed by the article was evident Thursday from the failure of either the White House or the Pentagon to issue the usual reassuring statements in response to the article.
The White House declined to comment, although, according to the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks, the article "was being discussed there". The Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said Secretary of Defence Robert M. Gates "has read the profile on Admiral Fallon but chooses not to comment on it or other press accounts."
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.
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