Fallon and Barnett Redux

Mark Perry has a superb guest post on the “Fox” Fallon resignation over at Tony Karon’s place (via Ogged). It’s worth reading in full but here’s the gist:

[A]fter 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 fired. 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?”

Fred Kaplan contends that such freelancing was typical of Fallon:

This is nothing like the case of Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff who had his career cut short by Donald Rumsfeld for telling a Senate committee that a few hundred thousand troops would be needed to impose order in postwar Iraq. Shinseki was offering his professional judgment on a strictly military question—how many troops would be needed to perform a mission—in response to a senator’s question. Fallon, by contrast, was challenging the president’s policy—and at his own initiative.

Kevin Drum asks himself a hypothetical question:

Do we really want the commander in Iraq in 2009 telling the press that President Obama’s withdrawal plans are likely to lead to chaos and need to be slowed down? Even if that’s his heartfelt professional opinion?

I don’t think so. Bottom line: I’ll stick with civilian control of the military, even if I don’t happen to like the current civilians.

Me, too.

It’s truly odd to me that Fallon was spouting off to Barnett; certainly, one doesn’t get four stars on one’s shoulders by demonstrating lack of self-restraint. Perhaps he figured he was on the way out, anyway, and his pension was paid in full.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tlaloc says:

    I’ll say the same thing I told Drum: Obeying orders and keeping your mouth shut are two very different things. I’d much prefer our military was able to speak freely, as opposed to the current practice of being muzzled and only able to parrot the official administation line.

    Why is it acceptable to force the military to be circus attractions- trotted out to ohh and ahh congress- but only when they will say what the president wants them to say?

    If a dem is in office and the centcom commander believes their plan is a disaster waiting to happen I think they should be free to say so. Maybe they are right and maybe they are wrong but we aren’t harmed by having the datum. When the order comes down, though, they of course should follow it (so long as the order is not illegal/unconstitutional).

  2. James Joyner says:

    If a dem is in office and the centcom commander believes their plan is a disaster waiting to happen I think they should be free to say so. Maybe they are right and maybe they are wrong but we aren’t harmed by having the datum.

    Presuming administration policy is legal, officers have the right to give their advice privately and then either salute and carry on or resign if they are overruled. Officers in certain positions will also be asked to give their views to Congress, in which case they should indeed give their views.

    What they can’t do, however, is simply go sniping to the press every time they don’t get their way. Military officers are bureaucratic servants, not elected policymakers. Having them serve as independent voices competing to make policy would put us on the road to banana republic status. It would also undermine the professionalism of the military, as elected leaders — especially Democrats — would feel they couldn’t trust the officer corps.

  3. Tlaloc says:

    What they can’t do, however, is simply go sniping to the press every time they don’t get their way. Military officers are bureaucratic servants, not elected policymakers.

    Last time I cheched there was nothing to stop any other bureaucratic servant from airing their views…

    Having them serve as independent voices competing to make policy would put us on the road to banana republic status.

    Huh? I don’t get that at all? It seems much more likely that refusing to allow them to give their view puts us on that path. Right now Bush can claim anything about the events in Iraq and no one in the military is allowed to correct him (assuming Bush’s statement were a lie, and really why wouldn’t you assume that by now?).

    How can promoting free speech possibly be more likely to turn us into a banana republic?

    It would also undermine the professionalism of the military, as elected leaders — especially Democrats — would feel they couldn’t trust the officer corps.

    It’d be a different paradigm certainly, and doubtless some people would have trouble adjusting but as long as the officers “disagree and commit” when told their orders I don’t see how it undermine their professionalism.

    Military people have views and opinions, some of which are based on solid experience and personal knowledge. Refusing to let them express their views doesn’t negate their existence, it just means we make decisions with less information available.

  4. James Joyner says:

    I don’t get that at all? It seems much more likely that refusing to allow them to give their view puts us on that path.

    The military isn’t an ordinary bureaucracy; it’s armed. Perhaps the sine qua non of banana republics is a military that inserts itself into political affairs and substitutes its will for those of elected leaders.

  5. Cernig says:

    NBC reported last night that Gates hadn’t been talking to Fallon at all – in fact, he’d been refusing his phone calls.

    Smoke and mirrors, James – just like the Pentagon today suddenly cancelling open access to the report that says Saddam and AQ weren’t connected in any meaningful way. If you think that was a Pentagon decision, I’ve a bridge to sell you.

    Regards, C

  6. Tlaloc says:

    Perhaps the sine qua non of banana republics is a military that inserts itself into political affairs and substitutes its will for those of elected leaders.

    We’re about two hundred years to late to stop the military being injected into political affairs. The military has a lot of influence on the political scene, take a look at any year’s budget if you don’t believe me. The problem is that influence is monolithic, representing a handful of people’s interests (Joint Chiefs of Staff, head of DoD, President) rather than the interests of the people in the military in general.

    Besides which speaking your mind doesn’t have to mean the military “substitutes its will for those of elected leaders” any more than me critiquing a plan at works means I’m leading a coup against my boss. Honest criticism isn’t hostile.

  7. yetanotherjohn says:

    To be clear, those in the military can go spouting whatever nonsense they want to the press. Fallon could have given an interview on the need to protect our precious bodily fluids. But at the same time, the civilians have the right to ask for a resignation/fire them/discipline them. That is the balance.

    At the lowest level, a second lieutenant will be told to “take that hill”. A good commander will listen if the second louie says why it can’t be done. The good commander will evaluate the information, perhaps change plans, perhaps go ahead. Or perhaps the good commander will say this second louie doesn’t have the right stuff to take the hill and assign it to someone else. The good commander has a wider range of issues to consider than the second louie. The second louie should have a better feel for the tactical implications (e.g. his platoon has been in combat for 72 straight hours and are dead on their feet).

    What you don’t want is an environment or a second louie where they salute and then don’t put their best effort in taking the hill.

    When you get to the CENTCOM level, the sec def. or president will have more information and less, but the same issues are there. Further, at this level undermining the ability to conduct diplomacy (i.e. the decision maker is not the one you are negotiating with) is a good and sufficient reason to yank his ticket.

    All that said, I would respectfully suggest that it is possible that the real fault lies with Barrett in his reporting. Gates can’t sack Barrett, but he can achieve the same result by sacking Fallon. Now that raises some interesting possibilities. If the NYT interviewed Petraeus, wrote false things about the conversation (say that no matter what Bush says, Petraeus is going to personally lead the Iraqi army against Iran ala Patton, the German army and Russia at the end of WWII), could they force Bush to yank Petraeus, thus diminish the chances of success in Iraq and thus increase the chances of democratic success in November? I certainly wouldn’t want to be any general or official associated with Iraq, Bush, etc and not have my own “youtube” of any interview.

  8. Tlaloc says:

    But at the same time, the civilians have the right to ask for a resignation/fire them/discipline them. That is the balance.

    No disagreement there. I can be fired by my boss for speaking my mind. I just can’t be arrested for it.

    Wow, the only part of that post I found disagreeable was the paranoia in the last paragraph. Majority agreement between me and YAJ, on an issue involving the military no less, who would have thunk it?

  9. Ugh says:

    More accurately, the Constitution of the United States places foreign policy in the hands of the President as the Commander-in-Chief

    Wha? That makes no sense. The CiC power was incorporated into the Constitution to require the military to follow civilian command. I’m pretty sure that placing “foreign policy in the hands of the President” (to the extent that’s even accurate) comes from the President’s power “to make treaties”.

  10. glasnost says:

    Um, guys, did Fallon talk to Barnett at all? And more importantly, did he give any quote about ‘stopping’ anyone on Iran? Or did Barnett just quote what Fallon said on Al-Jazeera a year ago and war-game the rest?

    I understand James’ point – if Fallon had really gone out and given an interview blasting Bush’s alledged Iran policy.

    it’s not at all clear that anything like that happened. It seems equally plausible that Fallon’s private views just got leaked, over time and to a variety of people, and became publicized, so he got canned.

    That’s not particularly fair or wise on the part of the people doing the firing. I’m not saying Bush doesn’t have the right, but it’s a self-destructive act to fire people because reporters figure out that they privately don’t agree with you. He’ll probably be replaced by an Alberto Gonzales who would never even think Fallon thoughts. Hold on to your hats.

  11. seePea says:

    How was Gen Shinseki forced out early due to his Senate appearance? His retirement date was set way before the appearance was even scheduled and he left on his retirement date – not a day before it.

  12. DL says:

    This is so reminicent of the famous McArthur/ Truman debates about Korea -history hasn’t proven who was right about going or not going into Manchuria after the Chinese, but it does have some message anyway. The general was fired (and he was loved by all as a WWII hero/ not a no name) and the president ran the war his way.

  13. Bob says:

    First, Shinseki did not end his tour early. he retired right on time. What was different was his replacement was named a year out. So he became bureaucratically isolated. But he wasn’t forced out.

    Wes Clark was “retired” several months early too. One of the most important ways any leader affects what and how his goals are accomplished is by deciding who will be his subordinate leaders. Fallon was always an odd choice. He had no experience in Middle East. He was a Navy guy in the theater with two ground wars. And he had a way of going off on his own. PACOM, while important, isn’t the main effort.