Top U.S. Military Commander for Mideast to Retire

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Adm. William J. Fallon asked him for permission to retire and he agreed. Gates said the decision, effective March 31, was entirely Fallon’s and that Gates believed it was “the right thing to do.”

Fallon, who is traveling in Iraq, was the subject of an article published last week in Esquire magazine entitled “The Man Between War and Peace” that portrayed him as opposed to President Bush’s Iran policy. It described Fallon as a lone voice against taking military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

“Recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the president’s policy objectives have become a distraction at a critical time and hamper efforts in the Centcom region,” Fallon said in a statement.

“And although I don’t believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy in the Central Command area of responsibility, the simple perception that there is makes it difficult for me to effectively serve America’s interests there,” Fallon added.

Gates described as “ridiculous” any notion that Fallon’s departure signals the United States is planning to go to war with Iran, The Associated Press reported. He said “there is a misperception” that Fallon disagrees with the administration’s approach to Iran.

“Fallon had rankled senior officials of the Bush administration with outspoken comments on such issues as dealing with Iran and on setting the pace of troop reductions from Iraq – even though his comments were well within the range of views expressed by Mr. Gates,” The New York Times reported.

The Esquire article highlighted comments Fallon made to Al-Jazeera last fall, in which he said that a “constant drumbeat of conflict” from Washington that was directed at Iran and Iraq was “not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for. We ought to try to do our utmost to create different conditions.”

Fallon, who began his 41-year career as a fighter pilot and flew missions in Vietnam, became commander of U.S. Central Command on March 16, 2007. It is the regional headquarters that oversees military operations in the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He succeeded Army Gen. John Abizaid, who retired after nearly four years on the job.

“Since I’ve been at Central Command, regrettably, every public action that I have seen Iranian military or paramilitary forces take has been unhelpful, certainly in the Gulf, at sea,” Fallon said in a January interview on the NewsHour.

Fallon previously served as head of the U.S. Pacific Command, where he played a major role in the U.S. response to military build-up in China.

Gates said that until a permanent replacement is nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Fallon’s place will be taken by his top deputy, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the White House played no role in Fallon’s move.

“People should not misconstrue this as the price to be paid for speaking out within the Pentagon,” Morrell said, according to the AP. “This is not indicative of a hostile environment toward free thinking. This is indicative of what sadly became a perception problem that dogged Admiral Fallon — this perception that he was in a different place than the president and the administration when it came to Iran.”

President Bush praised Fallon’s service in a statement: “During his tenure at Centcom, Admiral Fallon’s job has been to help ensure that America’s military forces are ready to meet the threats of an often-troubled region of the world, and he deserves considerable credit for progress that has been made there, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.”