Bush to Replace Fallon on Route to Iran War?

Thomas Barnett published a piece in Esquire on CENTCOM chief William Fallon, a/k/a “The Man Between War and Peace,” that hit the Web yesterday evening and is already creating quite a buzz.

Bush to Replace Fallon on Route to Iran War? 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.


Past American governments have used saber rattling as a useful tactic to get some bad actor on the world stage to fall in line. This government hasn’t mastered that kind of subtlety. When Dick Cheney has rattled his saber, it has generally meant that he intends to use it. And in spite of recent war spasms aimed at Iran from this sclerotic administration, Fallon is in no hurry to pick up any campaign medals for Iran. And therein lies the rub for the hard-liners led by Cheney. Army General David Petraeus, commanding America’s forces in Iraq, may say, “You cannot win in Iraq solely in Iraq,” but Fox Fallon is Petraeus’s boss, and he is the commander of United States Central Command, and Fallon doesn’t extend Petraeus’s logic to mean war against Iran.

So while Admiral Fallon’s boss, President George W. Bush, regularly trash-talks his way to World War III and his administration casually casts Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as this century’s Hitler (a crown it has awarded once before, to deadly effect), it’s left to Fallon–and apparently Fallon alone–to argue that, as he told Al Jazeera last fall: “This constant drumbeat of conflict . . . is 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.”


Last December, when the National Intelligence Estimate downgraded the immediate nuclear threat from Iran, it seemed as if Fallon’s caution was justified. But still, well-placed observers now say that it will come as no surprise if Fallon is relieved of his command before his time is up next spring, maybe as early as this summer, in favor of a commander the White House considers to be more pliable. If that were to happen, it may well mean that the president and vice-president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year and don’t want a commander standing in their way.

And so Fallon, the good cop, may soon be unemployed because he’s doing what a generation of young officers in the U. S. military are now openly complaining that their leaders didn’t do on their behalf in the run-up to the war in Iraq: He’s standing up to the commander in chief, whom he thinks is contemplating a strategically unsound war.

But that’s not his job. As a combatant commander, his duty is to give the president and SECDEF his best strategic advice. And then either do what he’s damn well told or hand in his resignation.

It happens that I think Fallon is one hundred percent right on this one. But I continue to believe Barnett’s wrong here: Despite years of media speculation about BushCo putting us on a path to war with Iran, it’s just not happening. While I’d prefer a more straightforward diplomatic approach, all indications are that the saber rattling is just a tool for getting a better diplomatic solution.

Amanda Terkel, though, is buying what Barnett’s selling and notes that White House press secretary Dana Perino “refused to say whether Fallon’s position is secure until the end of his tenure” when asked about it.

Digby thinks Bush might do it just to help out John McCain:

If the Republicans want to shoot the moon to win in November, this is the likliest course. Start a new war and rely on the “rally round the flag” effect. It’s hard to imagine they could go to that well again, but never underestimate paranoia and the lure of patriotic grandeur and big ratings to push the country into temporary insanity.

The Left has been pushing the notion that Bush and Cheney are mad for war with Iran for years. But if they do it now, it’d be proof that it was being done for cynical electoral purposes?

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Fallon were replaced before the end of his tour. As widely reported, the administration is planning a major reshuffling of its senior officer corps in order to move David Petraeus into a CoCom slot, likely either NATO or CENTCOM, and to shape the military leadership well into the next administration.

But war with Iran is much less likely now than it was three months ago, before the NIE came out, and it wasn’t all that likely then. In the case of Iraq, there was a strong contingent that favored war and convinced Bush that the mission was doable and the justification a “slam dunk.” Nobody, from SECDEF Gates on down, thinks we have any good military options in Iran.

For what it’s worth, Joe Klein agrees.

UPDATE: Fallon himself rejects the article, despite his obvious cooperation in interviewing with Barnett.

Asked about the article yesterday, Fallon called it “poison pen stuff” that is “really disrespectful and ugly.” He did not cite specific objections.

At Barnett’s blog, Sean Meade responds, “I wonder: did Fallon have a chance to read the whole piece, or did Ricks read him the part about being at odds with Bush/Cheney …. Hopefully we’ll have a more extensive reaction from Admiral Fallon in the near future. It’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    IIRC Tom Barnett has been high on Adm. Fallon since before his appointment was announced.

    Dr. Barnett’s article is long but interesting. I do find it somewhat amusing to hear Adm. Fallon praised as our last defense against preemptive war with Iran when it seems just a year ago his appointment was being proclaimed as proof positive that preemptive war with Iran was imminent.

    one little driveby did catch my attention in the piece. Dr. Barnett writes:

    Past American governments have used saber rattling as a useful tactic to get some bad actor on the world stage to fall in line. This government hasn’t mastered that kind of subtlety.

    First, has the Bush Administration successfully used saber rattling to “get some bad actor…to fall in line”? I can’t recall off-hand but I don’t think so. Did the Clinton Administration? Bush 41? Reagan? Carter? When was the last time any administration was able to do so?

    These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’d really like to know.

  2. James Joyner says:

    When was the last time any administration was able to do so?

    The Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps?

    To some degree, Clinton did it with Haiti. Opinions are mixed on whether G.W. Bush did it with Khaddafy.

    Since there are no controls, it’s hard to know. That is, we don’t know what the outcome would have been minus the saber rattling.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    The Cuban missile crisis was saber rattling if you believe that Kennedy did not intend to use military force if he didn’t get what he wanted, brinksmanship otherwise. I think the latter.

  4. C.Wagener says:

    I’ll vote for Reagan with the Soviet Union.

    And isn’t the basis of the politicized NIE report that Iran suspended a portion of their nuke program in 2003? Didn’t something take place in 2003 in their neighborhood? But anyway, everything’s cool now that the NIE has stated that Iran suspended, for an unknown period of time, part of their nuke program. Nothing to see here. All hail Chamberlain!!

  5. Anderson says:

    But that’s not his job. As a combatant commander, his duty is to give the president and SECDEF his best strategic advice.

    I think advising Bush that war with Iran would be a really, really bad idea, would be interpreted by many as “standing up to the commander in chief.”

    I certainly think Kevin Drum goes off the edge with his read:

    Barnett is pretty clearly implying that if George Bush ordered an attack on Iran, Fallon couldn’t be trusted to carry it out.

    That is most certainly not implied by Barnett at all. Now, I can see dumbass Bush and Cheney thinking so, but there is no conflict between advising against Plan X and then dutifully carrying out Plan X to the best of your ability.