Guest Column: Mark Perry. When Admiral William “Fox” Fallon resigned, or was forced out, of his position as head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan, and for Iran if there were any conflict with Iran, much of the speculation hinged over Fallon’s very public opposition to Washington’s saber-rattling at Tehran. It struck me, though, that there was something misleading and melodramatic in the media reports suggesting, like the Esquire piece that proved his undoing, that Fallon was somehow a lone voice of opposition, a singular hero obstructing a march to war with Iran, like the man putting his body in the path of the Tiananmen-bound tank from 1989’s most famous news photograph. The opposition to war with Iran being expressed by Fallon is shared, as far as I know, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by Defense Secretary Gates himself. So, for some explanation of the dynamics at work, I turned to my friend Mark Perry, longtime defense and security analyst in Washington with his ear to the ground in the U.S. capital.
Mark is a director of Conflicts Forum, a longtime national security expert in Washington, whose most recent book, Partners in Command explores the relationship between Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George C. Marshall in managing the U.S. war in Europe.
Here’s what he sent, after burning the midnight oil — as ever, I’m excited and grateful to have Mark as a guest contributor.
The Slow Rise and Meteoric Fall of Admiral Fox Fallon
By Mark Perry
There is a bar. Set perilously atop the Marine Memorial Club and Hotel, the Leatherneck Lounge is one of San Francisco’s most legendary watering holes, an exclusive-of-sorts meeting place for veterans and their families. It is all that you might suppose it to be: semi-dark and warm, quiet and somber, with good steaks and smooth scotch and, if you are lucky enough to know the waiters, you can talk late into the night. I was a guest there several weeks ago, seated at a table with eight men who had seen a bit of war. Arrayed around me were retired three and four star Generals and a combat Colonel. While they talked (of the “Frozen Chosin,” the Ia Drang, “Helicopter Hell,” Beirut, the Highway of Death and Anbar) I listened: checking what they had experienced against what I had read.
The next morning, as the Boeing 737 carrying me home struggled into the air headed east, I memorialized the evening in the pages of my small notebook, filling twelve pages with anecdotes, quotes and descriptions. I did this knowing, of course, that I could never refer to any of the men at that table by name, nor place the words they had said in their mouths. It was not that the evening had been too personal or emotional, but that all of them had let down their guard to the point where I had been given insights to fundamental truths about their profession and its current state that were at once both damning and insightful. To the degree that I have been privy to such rare evenings among senior military officers (and I have) is not because I write about them — but because I don’t.
Which is why, after reading Thomas Barnett’s Esquire article on America’s Centcom Commander, I knew that William “Fox” Fallon would be forced into retirement. After reading the article, the men around that table would have thought as I do: that he was lucky he wasn’t fire. In truth, I would have busted him to Seaman Recruit.
Barnett’s piece has to rank as one of the most embarrassing portraits of an American officer in U.S. military history. Both for Barnett, as well as for Fallon. And that’s saying a lot. Written in pseudo Tombstone style — a kind of vague signaling that this is just-between-us tough guys talk — Barnett presents a military commander who is constantly on-the-go, trailing exhausted aides who never rest (oh, what a man he is!): Fallon doesn’t get angry (he gets “pissed off”) he doesn’t have a father (he has an “old man”), he doesn’t spend time (he does a “stint”), he doesn’t walk (he “sidles”) and he doesn’t talk, “he speaks in measured koans.” It’s boorish and, very often, it’s just plain wrong. Thus, Barnett: “If, in the dying light of the Bush administration, we go to war with Iran, it’ll all come down to one man. If we do not go to war with Iran, it’ll come down to the same man. He is that rarest of creatures in the Bush universe: the good cop on Iran, and a man of strategic brilliance. His name is William Fallon.”
Well, actually, yes — and no. The decision to go to war will come down to one man, but his name won’t be Fox Fallon, it will be George Bush. More accurately, the Constitution of the United States places foreign policy in the hands of the President as the Commander-in-Chief and the decision for declaring war is in the hands of the U.S. Congress. Fox Fallon’s role in all of this, as I am sure he must know, is to obey orders and to keep his mouth shut, a point that was undoubtedly made plain to him by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the immediate aftermath of the publication of this article. And, we might imagine, Bob Gates put his objections to the article in the following terms: “Fox, just what in the hell do you think you were doing talking to Thomas Barrett?”
But this little exchange, between Barnett and Fallon in Cairo, is what put the Admiral on the retirement list: “Fallon sidles up to me during a morning coffee break. ‘I’m in hot water again,’ he says.’ And Barnett asks him: “The White House?” And Fallon nods his head: “They say, why are you even meeting with Mubarak.” And Fallon goes on: ‘Why? Because it’s my job to deal with this region, and it’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. Washington interprets this as all aimed at them. Instead, it’s aimed at government and media in this region. I’m not talking about the White House … This is my center of gravity. This is my job.”
To hear Barnett talk about it, Fox Fallon is not only a “man of strategic brilliance,” he once actually stood between us and the apocalypse: “When the Admiral took charge of Pacific Command in 2005, he immediately set about a military-to-military outreach to the Chinese armed forces, something that had plenty of people freaking out at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The Chinese, after all, were scheduled to be our next war.” Oh really? The Chinese were scheduled to be our next war? That probably comes as somewhat of a surprise to Fox Fallon’s colleagues in the Navy and at the Pentagon and is just the kind of overblown claim that someone like Barnett thinks makes a commander a hero to his colleagues — but doesn’t. It’s poison of the worst kind and makes him ready fodder for every able seaman who carries papers from one Pentagon office to another: “Hey Tom, did you hear that Fox Fallon stopped World War Three — that guy’s really something.”
It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before. Fox Fallon is a modern Mark Clark, the legendary four star American Army commander of World War Two who led Allied troops in Italy. Like Fallon, the gangly Clark was tough talking and seemingly tireless, but he never met a reporter he didn’t like and he recruited them diligently. He trailed a tail of reporters who followed him through North Africa and Italy and posed, hands on hips, over maps when the photographers crowded around. “Take my good side,” he said, “my left side.” He hated the British, who had been bleeding all over North Africa, and commented that “it was better to fight an ally than be one.” When the allies landed at Normandy Clark was angry because the invasion took headlines away from his own triumphs. When his army took Rome he posed for the cameras and then turned to his colleagues: “I go now to the sounds of guns,” he said. Standing nearby, a reporter turned to a colleague: “On this historic occasion I feel like vomiting.”
There is a view abroad, commonly held, that Admiral William “Fox” Fallon has been sacrificed, has been gotten out of the way, by the Bush Administration because he disagreed with its policies on Iran. That Fallon stood in the way of the neo-Conservative cabal who is bent on expanding the Middle East conflict and that, when given the order for the attack (at some point in the future), Fallon would have courageously refused the order and reversed the tide of history.
William Fox Fallon was and is a Navy officer and a patriot. As such, if given a legitimate order from the President of the United States, as passed through the legally constituted chain-of-command, he would have obeyed the order. Of this we can have absolutely no doubt. To do otherwise is treason and to believe otherwise is to believe that Fallon would have rejected every moment of training, every tradition of his service, every law and custom that has governed U.S. civilian-military relations. The problem is not that Fox Fallon disagreed with George Bush.
The problem is that he talked to Thomas Barnett.