Fallon Leaves: Will Iran War Follow?

The rather sudden resignation of Adm. William Fallon, chief of the Central Command (Centcom), has any number of people worrying that war with Iran will surely follow. Adm. Fallon had famously said, about war with Iran, that it would happen "not on my watch," and he worked assiduously to make sure that would happen. Some of his public statements were guarded, but it was no secret that he had differences with the kind of impulsive belligerence that seems to characterize the Bush administration, especially Dick Cheney.

What seems to have precipitated Adm. Fallon’s resignation was this article in Esquire, by Thomas Barnett, a former professor at the Naval War College. While quite informative, the piece is sometimes a bit over-the-top in its obvious admiration of the good admiral – and it makes it clear that Fallon has major disagreements with the administration, at least in its more Iranophobic bellicose phases. Barnett himself is hardly shy about his distaste for "Admiral Fallon’s boss, President George W. Bush, [who] regularly trash-talks his war to World War III and his administration casually casts Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as this century’s Hitler (a crown it has awarded once before, to deadly effect)."

I talked to Lawrence J. Korb, an undersecretary of defense who is now with the more liberal Center for American Progress. He reminded me that while he was more outspoken than most, Adm. Fallon’s views were held by others, including Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen.

Still, there are reasons for concern. Blogging for U.S. News, Terry Atlas offered "6 Signs the U.S. May Be Headed for War With Iran." The first, of course, is Fallon’s resignation. Then there is Cheney’s scheduled "peace trip" to the Mideast, supposedly to boost the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Could one of his purposes be to urge Israel to make a first strike, after which the U.S. would just have to enter to support it? And he is also scheduled to visit Oman and Saudi Arabia. Atlas sees the Israeli airstrike on Syria, warships deployed off the coast of Labanon, some recent Israeli comments and Israel’s recent war with Hezbollah as ominous signs.

Even if the sofa samurai in Dick Cheney’s office and the American Enterprise Institute (not to mention Norman Podhoretz) still think a splendid little war with Iran might be a lovely capstone to Bush’s time in office, most of the military – the people who would have to draw up the plans and do the fighting and dying – are convinced a war with Iran would be a huge mistake. Such opinions are especially prevalent among the junior officers on a career path to colonel and general, who are disappointed that senior officers weren’t more forthright when the Bushies wanted to start the war with Iraq.

Speaking of the war with Iraq, whose fifth anniversary we are observing – doesn’t it seem like more than five years ago that the United States invaded Iraq? – it may well have been disagreement over the way forward in Iraq more than disagreement over Iran that led to Adm. Fallon’s resignation, which Mr. Korb believed was forced rather than voluntary.

As head of Centcom, Adm. Fallon’s responsibilities stretched from the Mediterranean to South Asia. He was concerned that keeping as many troops tied up in Iraq as are there now could leave the U.S. unprepared to handle crisis that might arise elsewhere.

The "surge" in the numbers of U.S. troops will end in July due to inescapable logistical factors, leaving the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at pre-surge levels of about 130,000. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander on the ground in Iraq, wants a pause in reducing the number of troops in Iraq, perhaps lasting until a new administration takes office next January. Adm. Fallon, has argued that the pause should be brief.

There’s little question that Adm. Fallon had the better of the argument on this issue. However, considering the importance over the long run of civilian control over the military in our system, it may have been just as well that he resigned. It may be wishful thinking, but I’m inclined to hope that once his retirement is complete at the end of the month, he will be in a position to speak out even more forcefully on blundering into more wars with little real preparation.

That leaves the question of how the U.S. is doing in Iraq after five years. There is little question that violence has declined dramatically since late 2006, and that some of this success can be attributed to the surge and to the changes in tactics Gen. Petraeus implemented. But those who have seen victory just around the corner in Iraq have been wrong every time so far, and it is prudent to question their wisdom now.

Two factors unrelated to the surge have contributed to the decline in violence. The "Awakening" among Sunnis in Anbar province and elsewhere who decided to oppose al-Qaeda in Iraq after being sympathetic to the jihadists, began before the surge was announced. And the cease-fire announced by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in August was also key.

Both these developments are fragile, and even Gen. Petraeus, generally an optimist, said on Thursday that "no one" in either the U.S. or Iraqi governments "feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation." Reconciliation was supposed to be the point of the surge.

Lawrence Korb thinks the best way to prod the Iraqi government into seriousness is to start withdrawing U.S. troops, thus removing the cushion that facilitates Iraqi inaction. That seems pretty obvious.

Of course this administration is unlikely to do anything so sensible. And based on experience it would never do to underrate this administration’s capacity to commit the United States to foolish adventures overseas. So vigilance and bucking up the willingness of military people to speak truth to ignorance will be important. But as of today I still suspect war with Iran is unlikely. I hope.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).