Fallon His Sword

Posted by Cutler on September 10, 2007
Iraq, Right Arabists

The Washington Post rolled out a big headline about new fissures within the Bush administration: “Among Top Officials, ‘Surge’ Has Sparked Dissent, Infighting.”

Echoes of the early days, perhaps, when Right Arabists like Scowcroft, Baker, and Powell battled Cheney, Rumsfeld and their Right Zionist allies for control of Bush administration foreign policy.

But for those who focus on the significance of factionalism, rifts, schisms, splits, rivalry and fissures the echoes turn out to be rather faint.

Most of the article–with a byline that appears to include the entire WaPo staff–provides a broad review of Iraq policy in the second Bush term.

One portion of the article does explain the headline and presents relatively weak evidence of a new “clash” that would ostensibly pit CENTCOM commander Admiral William J. Fallon, the Joint Chiefs, and Defense Secretary Gates against a small number of “surge” enthusiasts that include Bush, presidential counselor and PR guru Ed Gillespie and, presumably, General Petraeus.

[A] clash over the U.S. venture in Iraq… has been building since Fallon, chief of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees Middle East operations, sent a rear admiral to Baghdad this summer to gather information. Soon afterward, officials said, Fallon began developing plans to redefine the U.S. mission and radically draw down troops.

One of those plans, according to a Centcom officer, involved slashing U.S. combat forces in Iraq by three-quarters by 2010. In an interview, Fallon disputed that description but declined to offer details. Nonetheless, his efforts offended Petraeus’s team, which saw them as unwelcome intrusion on their own long-term planning. The profoundly different views of the U.S. role in Iraq only exacerbated the schism between the two men.

“Bad relations?” said a senior civilian official with a laugh. “That’s the understatement of the century. . . . If you think Armageddon was a riot, that’s one way of looking at it”…

[R]ather than heed calls for withdrawal, [Bush] opted for a final gambit to eke out victory, overruling some of his commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ushering in a new team led by Fallon, Petraeus, Crocker and a new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates….

As Petraeus settled into his new command, he decided to press for 8,000 additional support troops beyond the 21,500 combat forces the president had committed. Just a week earlier, Gates had told Congress that only 2,000 or 3,000 more might be needed. As he reviewed a briefing sheet in preparation for more testimony, Gates was annoyed to see a larger request buried on the page. He fumed that “this is going to make us look like idiots,” said a defense official. But Gates got Petraeus the troops….

Fallon, who took command of Centcom in March, worried that Iraq was undermining the military’s ability to confront other threats, such as Iran. “When he took over, the reality hit him that he had to deal with Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and a whole bunch of other stuff besides Iraq,” said a top military officer.

Fallon was also derisive of Iraqi leaders’ intentions and competence, and dubious about the surge. “He’s been saying from Day One, ‘This isn’t working,’ ” said a senior administration official. And Fallon signaled his departure from Bush by ordering subordinates to avoid the term “long war” — a phrase the president used to describe the fight against terrorism.

To Bush aides, Gates did not seem fully on board with the president’s strategy, either. As a member of the congressionally chartered Iraq Study Group before his selection to head the Pentagon, Gates embraced proposals to scale back the U.S. presence in Iraq. Now that he was in the Cabinet, he kept his own counsel.

But he consulted regularly with former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, a noted critic of the Iraq war; told Army audiences privately that a troop decrease was inevitable; and tried to avoid Sunday talk shows during the fight over the war spending bill to preserve relations with lawmakers, according to administration sources. “With Fallon, it’s pretty much in your face,” said a senior official. “Gates is quieter.”

A Pentagon official said Gates is “very concerned about all of our energy” being devoted to Iraq…

Petraeus was doing his part in Baghdad, hosting dozens of lawmakers and military scholars for PowerPoint presentations on why the Bush strategy had made gains….

Bush made a surprise visit to Anbar where he met with Maliki and the others to congratulate them, then met with the sheiks to highlight the success of the U.S.-tribal coalition.

The trip energized Bush and his team. Even Gates said he was more optimistic than he has been since taking office. While the secretary had been “cagey” in the past, a senior defense official said, “he’s come to the conclusion that what Petraeus is doing is actually more effective than what he thought.”

But the trip did not end the debate. Fallon has made the case that Petraeus’s recommendations should consider the political reality in Washington and lay out a guide to troop withdrawals, while Petraeus has resisted that, beyond a possible token pullout of a brigade early next year, according to military officials. The Joint Chiefs have been sympathetic to Fallon’s view.

In an interview Friday, Fallon said he and Petraeus have reached accommodation about tomorrow’s testimony. “The most important thing is I’m very happy with what Dave has recommended,” he said. As for the earlier discussions, he begged off. “It’s too politically charged right now.”

What does all that amount to?

Probably not much.  Critics should not take much comfort in the idea that they have allies “on the inside.”

Are there some elements of the military brass who favor a “radical” drawn down of troops?  Maybe.  And it is possible that Fallon has been “captured” by this crowd.  But it wasn’t long ago that critics were thinking of Fallon as an administration stooge.

Back in March 2007, Craig Unger wrote in Vanity Fair:

[The idea of a surge] was sharply at odds with the consensus forged by the top brass in Iraq. Iraq commander General George Casey and General John Abizaid, the head of Central Command (CentCom), had argued that sending additional troops to Iraq would be counterproductive. (Later they both reversed course.)…

Soon, it would be announced that Casey and Abizaid were being replaced with more amenable officers: Lieutenant General David Petraeus and Admiral William J. Fallon, respectively. The escalation was on.

Maybe Fallon has proven less “amenable,” after all.

There have been other reports in the past that would lead critics to invest considerable hope in Fallon.

Gareth Porter filed one such report:

Fallon… [sent] a strongly-worded message to the Defence Department in mid-February opposing any further U.S. naval buildup in the Persian Gulf as unwarranted.

“He asked why another aircraft carrier was needed in the Gulf and insisted there was no military requirement for it,” says the source, who obtained the gist of Fallon’s message from a Pentagon official who had read it.

Fallon’s refusal to support a further naval buildup in the Gulf reflected his firm opposition to an attack on Iran and an apparent readiness to put his career on the line to prevent it. A source who met privately with Fallon around the time of his confirmation hearing and who insists on anonymity quoted Fallon as saying that an attack on Iran “will not happen on my watch”.

Asked how he could be sure, the source says, Fallon replied, “You know what choices I have. I’m a professional.” Fallon said that he was not alone, according to the source, adding, “There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box.”

Be that as it may, the “dissent” reported by the Washington Post seems pretty weak.

Gates is portrayed as being something less than “fully on board,” but he is also depicted as delivering the troops and coming around to a more “optimistic” view of the surge.  Hardly the stuff of factional sabotage.

And Fallon is hardly channeling Cindy Sheehan.

Indeed, he seems pretty pleased about the surge.  Consider an excerpt from his recent remarks to the Commonwealth Club of California:

Adm. William Fallon, the head of U.S. Central Command, said his trips to Iraq have convinced him momentum has shifted away from the insurgents.

“In the less than six months I’ve been in this job, I have seen a substantial change and it gives me some significant optimism that this place may just work out the way we had envisioned, or some had envisioned, when the tasks were undertaken,” Fallon said in remarks to the Commonwealth Club of California, a public affairs forum.

“What’s going on now in the security business in Iraq is that things are substantially improved,” he said. “By almost any measure, any statistical analysis of what’s happened in the last few months, there’s been an improvement.”

And, as I noted in a previous post, Fallon hardly counts himself among those leading the charge against the Maliki government.  Indeed, if his own account of his conversations with Saudi King Abdullah are credible, Fallon basically told the Saudis to go to hell.

In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Fallon said the king told him “several times” during their April 1 discussion that U.S. policies “had not been correct in his view.”

“He also told me that he had severe misgivings about the Maliki government and the reasons for that,” Fallon added. “He felt, in his words, that there was a ’significant linkage to Iran.’ He was concerned about Iranian influence on the Maliki government and he also made several references to his unhappiness, uneasiness with Maliki and the background from which he came.”

In a message that U.S. officials said will be underscored by Cheney, Fallon said he urged the king to show some support for the Iraqi leadership even if he does not like Maliki, because it is “unrealistic” to expect a change in the Baghdad government.

“We’re not going to be the puppeteers here,” Fallon told the Senate committee…

Just to review, then: Fallon is pleased with the surge and has been resisting Sunni Arab pressure for an anti-Shiite coup in Iraq.

With dissent like that, who needs unity?

3 Comments to Fallon His Sword

  • When Fallon said:

    “…this place may just work out the way we had envisioned, or some had envisioned, when the tasks were undertaken,”

    Do we know what he means? It seems the goal from the beginning was to weaken the Sunni power in Iraq and empower the Shiites through elections. This seems to provide a democratic Shiite alternative to the theocracy in Iran. Was this the goal?

    Did things go wrong when Chalabi didn’t become the Shiite leader? Is the United States in a quiet alliance with the Hakims and Sistani or are these connections less than sound?

  • Thank you for your interest and your questions. I have written quite a bit about these issues (US goals in Iraq; US relations with the Shiite majority, etc.) in previous posts. You can find these posts by typing some keywords (Sistani, Hakim, etc.) in the “search” engine on the right side of the blog.
    -Cutler

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