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Top U.S. Commander in Mideast Steps Down

March 11, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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The top military commander for the Middle East, Admiral William J. Fallon, resigned Tuesday amid speculation that he disagreed with the Bush administration's policy toward Iran. Time magazine reporter Mark Thompson details the story.

JIM LEHRER: Admiral Fallon resigns. Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the admiral will be stepping down from Central Command, an area that spans a region from North Africa to Afghanistan. For more on this surprise announcement, we turn to Mark Thompson, national security correspondent at Time magazine.

Mark, good to have you with us again.

Why the resignation?

MARK THOMPSON, Time Magazine: Basically, there was the appearance of a growing chasm between Admiral Fallon and his bosses back in Washington, including the president, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that they were more eager to go to war with Iran than Admiral Fallon was.

And, as a recent article said, that he was the only fellow standing strong against going to war with Iran, as that chasm persisted, even if it were merely a perception and not a reality, basically, Admiral Fallon felt that he had to resign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how much of it was this Esquire magazine article that came out a few days ago?

MARK THOMPSON: A lot of people in the Pentagon, they split into two camps. The military people basically think that Admiral Fallon was pushed out.

Civilians in the Pentagon say that’s not the case. In fact, Admiral Fallon called Secretary Gates before the article came out to warn him about it. Apparently, Admiral Fallon got a little too cozy with the reporter, Tom Barnett, and Tom Barnett, the author, sort of asserted things that Fallon really didn’t say.

Plus, Fallon posed for photographs that irritated some civilian leaders in the Pentagon. It gave the imprimatur that it really was an authorized piece.

Fallon's take on Pentagon policy

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how much of a chasm is there? I mean, as you say, in this article the author portrays Fallon as the only thing standing between war or no war between the United States and Iran.

MARK THOMPSON: That is somewhat striking, because if you listen to Secretary Gates since he's been in office, he, too, has said, "Listen, diplomacy is the way to go here." And so has Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The neocons, who sort of got the war drums going for the war in Iraq, similarly want to go to war with Iran, but they're not running the government anymore.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so how much disagreement is there between Admiral Fallon on his way out and Defense Secretary Gates on Iran?

MARK THOMPSON: Secretary Gates said it today, and so did Admiral Fallon, that there really isn't much difference, that there's a perception of difference. Secretary Gates stressed that it was a cumulative effect of some things that Admiral Fallon had said.

He'd been on Al Jazeera television talking about the constant drumbeat for war coming to Washington. That's not the kind of stuff a defense secretary wants to hear coming from one of his major regional commanders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is it just his willingness to talk to reporters, too many reporters, is that what it was?

MARK THOMPSON: It's not too many reporters, Judy. The concern in the military is, "Gee whiz, General Shinseki got in a lot of trouble the first go-around in this war because he said it would take several hundred thousand soldiers to keep the peace in Iraq after the invasion."

And in the same way, the civilians in the Pentagon don't want military officers to feel that Fallon's departure is going to force them to shut up. They think Secretary Gates in his tenure has built up enough goodwill among military people and allowed hem to speak freely that this shouldn't deter them from speaking out if they see something going astray.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, with Fallon there or not there, what is the administration posture toward Iran right now?

MARK THOMPSON: I think they are leaning strongly to solving this thing diplomatically. They don't want to invade a third Muslim nation on the cusp of their leaving office. Secretary Gates said today the notion that war was imminent or that Fallon's departure will portend a chance in U.S. policy toward Iran is ridiculous. And he said that three times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about with Iraq? I mean, Fallon was on the record in recent months as being less enthusiastic about the surge.

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, I mean, Admiral Fallon had a different job than General Dave Petraeus. Petraeus' job is to fight the war in Iraq. And he wanted a lot of troops to do that.

Admiral Fallon had to look more broadly, just like the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, look at the corporate health of the military. And they were leery of investing so much men and materiel into Iraq because there's a lot of other trouble spots around the world.

I think that's more of an institutional role than any personal animosity between those two guys.

Secretary Gates weighs in

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have the sense that the defense secretary -- that this was a Gates' decision or that President Bush was involved? Or we just don't know the answer to that?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, we don't know. We do know that Secretary Gates said the White House was not involved. "I handle everything like this happening at the Pentagon. This morning, Admiral Fallon called me up, offered the resignation, and I reluctantly accepted it."

He didn't have to accept it. Many times they'll fight that and say, "No, siree, you need to stay in the job." This time they didn't say that, which leaves many to believe that they were happy to get that letter of resignation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So do you get the sense at all, Mark Thompson, that Secretary Gates agonized over this, took his time, or that he pretty swiftly decided, "This is it," and that Fallon was actually pushed, in effect?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, I think for the past week there's been a sense that the clock was ticking on Admiral Fallon. As soon as he made that phone call to Secretary Gates, he knew how bad it was. It was just a question of when the mine was going to explode, and it exploded today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about his replacement? It's his deputy who will step in?

MARK THOMPSON: It's his deputy, Army Lieutenant General Marty Dempsey, at least temporarily. He's slated to go take command in Europe, so there's likely to be somebody we can't even imagine right now filling that slot later this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So should one look for a change in policy in any part of that region, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran?

MARK THOMPSON: That's an interesting question. Admiral Fallon was brought in as a Navy guy, as an admiral, a different strategic perspective than an Army general would have. Whether we'll revert back to an Army general or a Marine, too early to say, but I doubt it will be another Navy admiral.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Mark Thompson, Time magazine, thank you very much.

MARK THOMPSON: Thank you, Judy.