Behind the Fall of “Fox” Fallon

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.

American Icarus

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.”

Not anymore.

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.

What bunk.

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.

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31 Responses to Behind the Fall of “Fox” Fallon

  1. Monte Davis says:

    Bravo to Perry, and thanks for bringing us this.

    Barnett has had valuable insights, but this time he channeled his inner Kagan or Robert Kaplan or, heaven help us, Victor Hanson Davis… doing neither his readers nor Fallon any favors.

  2. Pingback: Some Nice Analysis on Fox Fallon « I’m Not Going to Do This Every Day

  3. Spyguy says:

    So, as I read this, there is absolutely no one that will stop Bush when he orders the attack on Iran, because to do so would be “treason.” Also define “legitimate order.” Does an attack order signed by Bush make everything OK, even if it is counter to what Congress and the American people want?

    For a while after the NIE, I thought I would lose my substantial bet that the US/Israel would attack Iran before bush gets booted out, but now I am can see that there is a good chance they I may just get my money (provided we don’t all get nuked).

    I looks like there are no people in the government that are willing to ignore a bush attack order. I am sure Petrais will be a cheerleader for another disater.

    I wonder if my winnings from my bet will cover more than a single gallon of gas by the time Bush gets us into another foolish war.

    Yes, I do NOT trust Bush one bit. He is an arrogant lier who does not care one bit about my welfare. And no, Iran is absolutely NO THREAT to me if the US/Israel do not attack.

  4. Dave Bowman says:

    Yes, by all means, get rid of this headline-seeking narcissist, and replace him with somebody less attention and approval-seeking, like David Petraeus…pfffft.

  5. badri says:

    ..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. ..
    DUH ! he ( and all generals ) always have an option to resign . if they disagree fundamentally . and believe in some thing . i guess the writer has been around too long in the inner sanctum of power .
    this is not to deny that speaking to press was unwise to say the least .

  6. Pat S. says:

    Interesting angle. I think there are meritorious points in both the article and the comments. Those who say that there’s nobody left in government to oppose a war with Iran should take greater note of both the Secretary of Defense and the JCS Chairman, both of whom have been outspoken (perhaps not as much as Fallon) that war would be a bad idea. And both of those two have more power and influence than Fallon did.

    If the order were given to target Tehran, then yes, I think it would be ethical for officers to resign over it or even to refuse the order. But there’s another term for when the military refuses civilian control, and that is coup d’etat. In a technical sense, going against the President’s orders is a direct refutation of civilian control and of the Constitution, as the President is ultimately a civilian. If the President is a damned idiot, the blame lies with the electorate (who I think has escaped a lot of the blame for what’s happened to our nation in the past seven+ years.) Ultimate devotion to the chain of command is desirable as power swings from one end of the political spectrum to the other — the military isn’t supposed to be a political body. What if generals decide to refuse President Obama / Clinton II’s orders?

  7. Jeremy S. says:

    Sorry Mr. Perry but you come across as being a in way too deep with the people you’re supposed to be reporting on “reporter” here. Fallon’s fall is just another nail in the coffin that we seem bent on building for ourselves. Yes, let’s do whatever President Bush tells us to do because he’s a “war President, commander-in-chief” never mind that we have a CONSTITUTION in this Country which spells out the process for going to war, which believe it or not involves a little bit more than “we go to war if the President tells the U.S. Military to go to war”.

  8. FredJ says:

    The Ayatollahs are trying to play the same Great Game that Saddam was playing: Use oil to get revenue, use revenue to get weapons, use the weapons to conquer more oil. Repeat – until you’ve conquered the entire Mideast. Then dominate the West as much as you can.

    If the Ayatollahs can conquer or co-opt the other two big oil states, they can succeed.

    Just because sophisticated westerners have a post-historical world view, doesn’t mean anybody else does. The game is called World Conquest and it doesn’t end just because we don’t want to play.

  9. Pat S. says:

    Fred Kaplan at Slate is with Perry on this one:

    (Shameless plug for my employer)

  10. edq says:

    Asad Abu Khalil suggests on his blog that Fallon’s resignation had more to do with his interview on Al Jazeera.

  11. An American “patriot” is one who obeys an order to start an illegal war of agression that will undoubtedly kill many thousands of innocent people, for the benefit of giving the US ruling class a bit more power on the world stage?

    I was given to understand that the oft-heralded ‘American values’ would prescribe rather different behaviour.

    And didn’t the Nuremburg judges have something to say about “following orders”?

    I’m actually a big, big fan of Conflicts Forum and the work Mark Perry’s done there (and also of Tony and Rootless Cosmopolitan). So I’m really quite taken aback by this article. Its disappointing.

  12. david says:

    Many a pundit stateside would not have jobs were it not for the time-honored military tradition of whispering campaigns. This is obviously common fare for most journos, but the striking part of the article, as Perry points out, is Barnett’s ubiquitous presence at every turn and turn of phrase.

    Excellent little blog, Mr. Karon. And more pub for conflicts forum, please.

  13. Carroll says:

    The US military is REQUIRED to disobey an illegal order. That includes Fallon.

    Here’s the gist of the military law with includes the international laws adopted:

    1) First you look at the International laws. According to the Nuremberg Principles “planning, preparation, initiation or waging a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties” is a crime against peace.
    Under international law, codified in the United Nations Charter, the use of force is only legal if authorized by the United Nations Security Council or used in self-defense and then only for a limited time until the United Nations can act to restore peace and security.
    Under Article 6, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, all duly ratified international treaties (including the United Nations Charter) are “the supreme Law of the Land.”

    And then you go to:

    2) U.S. Army’s Field Manual 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare

    498. Crimes Under International Law
    Any person, whether a member of the armed forces or a civilian, who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment. Such offenses in connection with war comprise:
    a. Crimes against peace ( under Nuremberg Laws- see I above)


    509. Defense of Superior Orders
    a. The fact that the law of war has been violated pursuant to an order of a superior authority, whether military or civil, does not deprive the act in question of its character of a war crime, nor does it constitute a defense in the trial of an accused individual, unless he did not know and could not reasonably have been expected to know that the act ordered was unlawful. In all cases where the order is held not to constitute a defense to an allegation of war crime, the fact that the individual was acting pursuant to orders may be considered in mitigation of punishment.

    b. In considering the question whether a superior order constitutes a valid defense, the court shall take into consideration the fact that obedience to lawful military orders is the duty of every member of the armed forces; that the latter cannot be expected, in conditions of war discipline, to weigh scrupulously the legal merits of the orders received; that certain rules of warfare may be controversial; or that an act otherwise amounting to a war crime may be done in obedience to orders conceived as a measure of reprisal. At the same time it must be borne in mind that members of the armed forces are bound to obey only lawful orders (e. g., UCMJ, Art. 92).

    510. Government Officials
    The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a war crime acted as the head of a State or as a responsible government official does not relieve him from responsibility for his act.

    511. Acts Not Punished in Domestic Law
    The fact that domestic law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.

    Fallon could refuse an order for a premptive strike on Iran under US 27-10 Law of Land Warfare which include the Nuremberg Laws which would describe it as a violation of the peace.
    And he would be following the letter of the law of the US Army Manual.
    But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t fired or discharged in the US, it just means that he avoided violating international Laws to which the Army has subcribed. A catch 22.

    In the US currently the neocon and the liberal interventionalist have been busy trying to get the UN to legalize “premptive war” or in other words not make it a war crime against the ‘peace”. Obviously they have a reason for trying to do that.

    Under international law and according to our own land Warfare rules almost everyone involved in the Iraq war could be in the International dock awaiting trial for war crimes.

  14. Tony says:

    I think everyone is misunderstanding what Mark is saying here; he is saying it’s absurd to suggest, as the Esquire piece did, that Fallon was the lone voice of dissent who might stop a war; that this betrays little understanding of the military culture and, also, of the current senitments among the uniformed brass. Fallon went down because he made it easy for his enemies to demand his ouster by crossing certain lines, but many more who think like him (I’d speculate that Secretary Gates himself may be among them) remain in place.

    My own sense (I’ll elaborate in a new post) is that all this talk about his ouster suggesting an Iran war is more likely is misguided hysteria — nothing really changes in the equation despite his removal, unless you accept the rather Hollywood-esque notion that he was the last man standing in the way of the charge to war… Actually, the bigger concern for neocons appears to be that Fallon opposed Petraeus on keeping the “surge” going. And it’s a safe bet that Petraeus’s battle with the Joint Chiefs over that one continues, regardless of Fallon’s departure…

  15. Pingback: OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The slow rise and meteoric fall of Admiral “Fox” Fallon

  16. Realist says:

    “To do otherwise is treason”



    GEN. PETER PACE: … Number two, it is the absolute responsibility of everybody in uniform to disobey an order that is either illegal or immoral.

    It seems a whole lot of traitors have been escalating positions in the US Armed Forces lately.

    And sure enough resigning is never treason.

  17. Tony says:

    I’m not really sure what this is all about; Mark said Fallon would obey a LEGAL order, not any order…

  18. Leah says:

    Why are so many people here willfully misunderstanding what Mark Perry is saying? See Tony’s comments above.

    Neither of them are saying that it is inconceivable Bush might push the button for an actual attack on Iran, only that Fallon was never the only bulwark against that possibility, and isn’t now, and that the emphasis given in the Esquire article keeps us from understanding the reality of the situation for those of us who are committed to opposing such an attack, including the fact that significant numbers of military personnel in the upper echelons think it an awful idea.

    Let me add my enthusiasm for the work being done at Conflict Forum, and especially for the multi-part discussion by Mark Perry and an associate on their experiences talking to both Hamas and Hezbollah, which can also be found on line at Asia Times.

    What worries me now about the unabated Bush/Cheney desire to strike Iran is less about them actually doing it on Bush’s watch, although I have no doubt that he’d love to before leaving office, and more about the conscious Republican and right-wing positioning that’s meant to place any Democrat elected in November in a defensive position vis at vis any policy of engagement with Iran, and any hesitation not to meet trumped up concerns about Iran’s “immense power” with military force. You can pretty much bet on the fact that once a Democrat is in the White House the Republican opposition will discover with horror the despotic implications of ther own unitary theory of presidential power, which will allow them to then claim that any failure on the part of a President Clinton or a President Obama to go after “our enemies” fast and hard requires Republicans to mount precisely the kind of fierce opposition to a Presidential foreign policy that they have been characterizing as close to treason for these last eight years.

  19. Let me repeat. I’m a big, big fan of Tony’s blog – which I regard as indispensible – and of Mark Perry and Conflicts Forum; which I regard as possibly the most important current political initiative regarding the broader Arab-Israeli issue. I met Alaister Crooke last summer as part of some research I was doing on radical Islam, and he was the model of courtesy, generous with his time and hugely helpful.

    So any suggestion that this piece is being misread “willfully” is erroneous, I’m afraid. Raising those criticisms gave me exactly no pleasure at all.

    I think if this many people have misread the piece, that at least raises the question of whether Mark succeeded in expressing himself as he intended to.

    I’ve now re-read in light of Tony’s clarification. I think its fairly easy to see why others have come away from it with the same impression as me.

    To quote:

    “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”

    Was he saying that Fallon would only have obeyed a legal order? Actually he referred to a “legitimate” order. And the way that was phrased gave the strong impression that that legitimacy flowed from the structure of command, not international law. Perry says:

    “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…”

    He then goes on to mention military culture as a reason Fallon would have respected the chain of command, but the impression is very strongly given that Mark thinks “and rightly so”. The fact that such an attack on Iran would almost certainly be illegal isn’t mentioned either way.

    Given just about everything else I’ve read of Mark’s writing, I can well believe that he didn’t mean to give this impression. Hence my surprise at the piece, as expressed in my first comment above. But I think its pretty clear why several of us have read this in the way we have.

  20. edq says:

    There may be widespread opposition to an attack on Iran in the military but how would they go about preventing a war?

  21. Ziad says:

    110$ oil will do more to prevent a war than Fallon or anyone else could. Bear in mind that when Fallon was first appointed that was taken as a sign that war was inevitable…with Fallon the best man to fight the required carrier based war as the Army was otherwise engaged and the Air force would have few local bases to operate from.

    Now those people tell us that Fallon’s departure means the same as his appointment.

    They will not attack Iran, not because of military opposition, but for the same reason they wouldn’t attack North Korea; they can hit back.

    Don’t be fooled by tough guy talk. Bush and McCain have to be belligerent as what’s left of their base dreams of war with Iran. To tell them the real deal would be too disappointing.

  22. Ted says:

    Mark Perry is probably right – “The problem is that Fallon talked to Thomas Barnett”

    And let’s concur that Fallon has all the military training and political experience and instincts to attain the position of Admiral and head of Central Command.

    So with all that capability and experience, why did he do it? Surely he must have known he could not survive.

    Either Fallon’s really naive or he fell on his sword. Mark does not explain why he did it. Perhaps this is the real story.

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  26. Barnett has had valuable insights, but this time he channeled his inner Kagan or Robert Kaplan or, heaven help us, Victor Hanson Davis… doing neither his readers nor Fallon any favors.

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