Admiral Fallon & the Denial of History

by on March 14th, 2008

We’ve all heard the axiom, one that has achieved a wholly unwarranted level of credibility, that war should always be a last resort. Military historians have a plethora of examples of wars that were either lost or needlessly protracted due to a belated entrance. Although Hannibal enjoyed many military successes in the Second Punic War, some historians argue that Carthage’s twenty-three hiatus after the First Punic War was a contributing factor in its ultimate destruction.

In modern times, the most ignoble example is World War Two, and in a moment of inadvertent prescience relative to our current war against radical Islam, William F. Buckley was once asked whether or not he believed that war should be a last resort. He replied that it was an absurd notion, and that had we stopped Hitler before he took the Sudetenland in 1938 we might well have prevented the war. The difference, he noted, could be measured in the 45 million souls who perished.

Against that backdrop we turn to President Bush’s decision to remove Admiral William Fallon from his position as head of U.S. Central Command. With some hesitation we link to the recent article in Esquire, which provides the prototypical–read disdainful, scornful–rebuttal to our traditional understanding of war. Which is to say that conflict, and its offspring, war, is a natural–i.e., timeless–outgrowth of profound differences between regimes and nations, typically the result of border disputes, trade route hegemony, or religious conflicts.

The author, Thomas P.M. Barnett, who wrote the thoughtful book “The Pentagon’s New Map,” is a Democrat with whom we episodically agree, as in the case of his book–but not his piece in Esquire. As Barnett argues, Fallon has been at odds with the Bush Administration for years, and notes that

“He is as patient as the White House is impatient, as methodical as President Bush is mercurial…”

More pointedly, notes Barnett,

“…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.”

What, precisely, is unsound about a process that begins with tiered sanctions and leads to a U.N. Resolution demanding that Iran cease its uranium enrichment program or face military action, we aren’t told. But, we do learn that he would, if circumstances were just right, be willing to go to war with Iran. However, it’s the studied reticence he brings to the strategy that rightfully discomfits those who support a more deliberative–which is to say, successful–approach to dealing with an adversary.

The most apt example is his curious notion that Iran should be brought into a Middle East conference:

“…right on the heels of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s meetings with Middle Eastern ministers of defense, Fallon held a similar summit of Persian Gulf chiefs of defense in Tampa earlier this year, something Centcom has never attempted before.

Could Iran be a participant in something like this down the road?

‘Oh, absolutely, eventually. It’s like the Chinese,’ he says. ‘It would be great if Iran turned into a team that decided to play ball in the end.'”

We expect such naivete from State Department officials, but not from our military’s highest ranking member. Indeed, although the think tanks would welcome him, President Bush as a right to have commanders who are willing to carry out–not undermine–his policies. There is, indeed, a difference between providing constructive, contrary ideas and subverting the mission.

With respect to his ideas about strategy, Barnett notes that “Fallon sticks out like a sore thumb with the neocons, who have the unfortunate tendency to come off as unpredictable to their allies and predictable to their enemies.” This is the realist’s comforting but thoroughly mischaracterized notion of the neoconservative approach to foreign policy. For anyone who takes the time to review the pre-Iraq war signals sent by President Bush to the U.N. Security Council, as well as to the entire world through a series of speeches on the subject, the message was clear: Saddam’s flouting of 17 U.N. Resolutions demanded a response, and 29 Democratic senators agreed, voting in favor of military action.

Although a measure of unpredictability with one’s foes can keep them off balance, when it comes to summary statements and ultimatums, false positives are not only counter-productive, they are dangerous. The regime in Iran won’t halt its nuclear program with hollow threats. Rather a vice-like tightening of sanctions with the threat of military action is the only way to leverage the intended outcome.

That kind of rhetoric makes the Fallons of the world cringe because, in their view, it supplants their infinitely adroit machinations with blunt, Patton-esque folly. Among many other ill effects, their approach has a lead time best measured in years, which means that not unlike Hitler, who grew into a formidible foe, Iran will be permitted to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Then we’ll hear the cries from Fallon and his ilk about the crucial element of timing and they’ll demand to know why we sat passively as this gathering storm developed. Since we have over two thousand years of history, which provides a rich, if tragic pattern of nearly interminable warfare, punctuated by bullies and belligerents, you might think that the modern sensibility would understand that, after diplomacy fails, there is only one language that aggressors understand, the one written in blood–theirs.

Mella is editor of

Philip Mella