Fallon’s Dismissal: Insubordination in General, not Iran in Particular

Steve Clemons has good advice for the blogosphere and the press on the subject of Fallon’s firing: “Stop Hyperventilating: Fallon Fired, but Iran War Not Back On.” Indeed, all the evidence, including recent statements of the president himself, indicates that the administration is committed at the moment to use diplomatic and other non-military means to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. All of the Internet speculation that Fallon’s dismissal signals a go on an Iran war strikes me as a sort of depraved wishful thinking by armchair pundits wishing for a good story to chew on.

“By numerous accounts,” Clemons says, Bush was angered not so much by the substance of Fallon’s views, but by the fact that the article portrayed him as “the single military man standing between war and peace.”

Clemons quotes the Nelson Report to the same effect:

Fallon was fired for hubris which amounted to insubordination, Congressional and other sources feel.

It is both understandable and justifiable, given the chain of command and civilian control ethos of the US military.

Any administration, and not just Bush and Gates, would rapidly conclude that they could not tolerate having their hand-picked commander for Iraq and Afghanistan seeming to take on responsibility for deciding whether to go to war with Iran (or any other country), in an interview which appeared last week in Esquire Magazine.

In an editorial today, the Wall Street Journal makes a similar case: that it was insubordination — in the eyes of the White House, not paying proper respect, and in a too-public way, to the principle of civilian control of the military — that led to Fallon’s dismissal:

Yesterday’s resignation of Admiral William Fallon as Centcom Commander is being portrayed as a dispute over Iran. Our own sense is that the admiral has made more than enough dissenting statements about Iraq, Iran and other things to warrant his dismissal as much as early retirement.

But the most interesting thing about the Journal’s editorial, whether you agree with the above statement or not, is the suggestion that Fallon’s views about Iraq — as part of a larger push (the Journal calls it a “rearguard action”) among flag officers for a quicker withdrawal from Iraq — figured as prominently in the White House decision as his views on Iran:

A fateful debate is now taking place at the Pentagon that will determine the pace of U.S. military withdrawals for what remains of President Bush’s term. Senior Pentagon officials — including, we hear, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, Army Chief of Staff George Casey and Admiral Fallon — have been urging deeper troop cuts in Iraq beyond the five “surge” combat brigades already scheduled for redeployment this summer.

The Journal acknowledges that Pentagon commanders are rightly concerned about the strain Iraq is putting on the U.S. military, but argues that the best way to handle the strain is enlarging the size of the military, not withdrawal. “. . . we can think of few things that would ‘break’ the military more completely — in readiness, morale and deterrent power — than to leave Iraq in defeat, or in conditions that would soon lead to a replay of what happened in Vietnam,” the journal argues.

Whatever your view of that argument, the Journal’s assertion that stress on the military is causing high-level officers to push for withdrawal is highly plausible. For a dramatic illustration of the angst this stress is causing among military men and women, see the recent survey of 3,400 active and retired U.S. military officers conducted by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for a New American Security.

In that survey, an amazing 42 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “the war in Iraq has broken the U.S. military,” and an overwhelming 88 percent agreed that “the war in Iraq has stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin.”

It’s unsurprising that senior officers would be reacting to these widespread concerns with a push to withdraw more quickly from Iraq. But that decision, of course, is not theirs to make, and the nation is unquestionably better off in the long run leaving such decisions to the president and Congress.

UPDATE: Stratfor posits an entirely radical reason for Fallon’s dismissal — that it was related to his performance in managing crises in the two most important countries in his area of responsibility outside of Iraq: Pakistan and Afghanistan:

The reason is not Iraq, where responsibility and accountability have been shifted squarely to Gen. David Petraeus. Our eyes fall upon the great failure of Fallon’s tenure and the far eastern reaches of his area of responsibility: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fallon’s role is largely irrelevant. The underlying issues of Afghanistan and Pakistan predate his tenure. However, the situations in the two countries deteriorated under his supervision.

Under Fallon’s tenure . . . if it did not all come crashing down, it certainly did become apparent to everyone in Washington that the persistent stalemates that had been easy enough to ignore thus far — the military stalemate in Afghanistan and the political stalemate in Pakistan — had become unacceptable and unsustainable.

Fallon’s “resignation” was about these very unaddressed problems. Stratfor’s strategic perspective does not often fall to individuals; we see larger forces at work in the world. Fallon did not matter. But the empty seat at CENTCOM is likely to be an exception. Not simply because it is one of the most crucial posts in the U.S. military today, but because of the shift in focus Fallon’s removal entails and especially because of the two individuals at the top of the list to replace him: Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis and Petraeus himself.