The Man Between War and Peace
As head of U. S. Central Command, Admiral William "Fox" Fallon is in charge of American military strategy for the most troubled parts of the world. Now, as the White House has been escalating the war of words with Iran, and seeming ever more determined to strike militarily before the end of this presidency, the admiral has urged restraint and diplomacy. Who will prevail, the president or the admiral?
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, although all of his friends call him "Fox," which was his fighter-pilot call sign decades ago. Forty years into a military career that has seen this admiral rule over America's two most important combatant commands, Pacific Command and now United States Central Command, it's impossible to make this guy--as he likes to say--"nervous in the service." 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."
What America needs, Fallon says, is a "combination of strength and willingness to engage."
Those are fighting words to your average neocon--not to mention your average supporter of Israel, a good many of whom in Washington seem never to have served a minute in uniform. But utter those words for print and you can easily find yourself defending your indifference to "nuclear holocaust."
How does Fallon get away with so brazenly challenging his commander in chief?
The answer is that he might not get away with it for much longer. President Bush is not accustomed to a subordinate who speaks his mind as freely as Fallon does, and the president may have had enough.
Just as Fallon took over Centcom last spring, the White House was putting itself on a war footing with Iran. Almost instantly, Fallon began to calmly push back against what he saw as an ill-advised action. Over the course of 2007, Fallon's statements in the press grew increasingly dismissive of the possibility of war, creating serious friction with the White House.
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.
It's not that Fallon is risk averse--anything but. "When I look at the Middle East," he says late one recent night in Afghanistan, "I'd just as soon double down on the bet."
When Fallon is serious, his voice is feathery and he tends to speak in measured koans that, taken together, say, Have no fear. Let Washington be a tempest. Wherever I am is the calm center of the storm.
And Fallon is in no hurry to call Iran's hand on the nuclear question. He is as patient as the White House is impatient, as methodical as President Bush is mercurial, and simply has, as one aide put it, "other bright ideas about the region." Fallon is even more direct: In a part of the world with "five or six pots boiling over, our nation can't afford to be mesmerized by one problem."
And if it comes to war?
"Get serious," the admiral says. "These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them."
It was Rumsfeld's fall that led to Fallon picking up his greatest and, inevitably, final mission. Smart guy that he is, Robert Gates, the incoming secretary of defense, finagled Fallon out of Pacific Command, where he'd been radically making peace with the Chinese, so that he could, among other things, provide a check on the eager-to-please General David Petraeus in Iraq.
As the head of U. S. Central Command, his beat is the desert that stretches from East Africa to the Chinese border--a fractious little sandbox with Iraq on one edge and Afghanistan on the other and tens of thousands of American boots already on the ground in both. Pakistan's there in one corner, threatening to boil over and spill its nuclear jihadists forth upon the world; in another, the Gaza Strip continues to hum like a bowstring; and up north, the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia, the 'Stans, rattle along under dictators who range from the merely authoritarian to the genuinely insane. And right in the middle lies Iran.
Where there's peace in the region, how do you keep it? Where there's war, how do you contain it or end it? Where there are threats, how do you counter them? For starters, you might want to make some friends. Which is what Fallon was doing recently on a tour of his area of responsibility.
It's late November in smoggy, car-infested Cairo, and I'm standing in the front lobby of a rather ornate "infantry officers club" on the outskirts of the old town center. Central Command's just finished its large, biannual regional exercise called Bright Star, and today Egypt's army is hosting a "senior leadership seminar" for all the attending generals. It's the barroom scene from Star Wars, with more national uniforms than I can count.
Judging by Fallon's grimace as his official party passes, I can tell that the cover story in this morning's Egyptian Gazette landed hard on somebody's desk at the White House. U.S. RULES OUT STRIKE AGAINST IRAN, read the banner headline, and the accompanying photo showed Fallon in deep consultation with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Fallon sidles up to me during a morning coffee break. "I'm in hot water again," he says.
"The White House?"
The admiral slowly nods his head.
"They say, 'Why are you even meeting with Mubarak?' " This seems to utterly mystify Fallon.
"Why?" he says, shrugging with palms extending outward. "Because it's my job to deal with this region, and it's all anyone wants to talk about right now. People here hear what I'm saying and understand. I don't want to get them too spun up. Washington interprets this as all aimed at them. Instead, it's aimed at governments and media in this region. I'm not talking about the White House." He points to the ground, getting exercised. "This is my center of gravity. This is my job."
Fallon was quietly opposed to a long-term surge in Iraq, because more of our military assets tied down in Iraq makes it harder to come up with a comprehensive strategy for the Middle East, and he knew how that looked to higher-ups. He also knows that sometimes his statements on Iran strike the same people as running "counter to stated policy." "But look," he says, "yesterday I'm speaking in front of 250 Egyptian businessmen over lunch here in Cairo, and these guys keep holding up newspapers and asking, 'Is this true and can you explain, please?' I need to present the threats and capabilities in the appropriate language. That's one of my duties."
Fallon explains his approach to Iran the same way he explains why he doesn't make Al Qaeda the focus of his regional strategy as Centcom's commander: "What's the best and most effective way to combat Al Qaeda? We tend to make too much or too little a deal about it. I want a more even keel. I come from the school of 'walk softly and carry a big stick.' "
Fallon is the American at the center of every circle in this part of the world. And it is a testament to his skill, and to the failure of American diplomacy, that so much is left for this military man to do himself. He spends very little time at Centcom headquarters in Tampa and is instead constantly "forward," on the move between Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and all the 'Stans of Central Asia.
He was with Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf the day before he declared emergency rule last fall. "I'm not the chief diplomat of this country, and certainly not the secretary of state," Fallon says in Kabul's Green Zone the next night. "But I am close to the problems." So, he says, that leaves him no choice but to work these issues, day in and day out.
Late that night, I am sitting with Fallon deep in the compound that encompasses the presidential palace and the International Security Assistance Force. We are alone inside the cramped office of ISAF's chief public-affairs officer.
Fallon had spent several hours with "Mushi" the day before in Islamabad, discussing his impending decision. The press coverage would emphasize how Fallon had sternly warned Musharraf not to impose emergency rule. But on this night, the admiral seems neither alarmed by the move nor resigned to its more negative implications. As he talks, Fallon casually takes off the elastic bands that clamp his camo pants to his regulation tan boots. He's beat after a long day that included meetings with President Karzai and a helicopter trip to Khost, Osama bin Laden's pre-9/11 Afghanistan stronghold. But it was the martial law next door in Pakistan that is the focus of the world. Fallon has been through this before.
"I didn't do any preaching," Fallon says about his talks with Musharraf. "In a previous life here, I had two extra constitutional events: a coup in Thailand, and a head of the military took over in Fiji. So I talked to the president for quite a while yesterday, both with the ambassador and then alone. He walked me through his rationale for what he was going to do and why he was going to do it and why he thought he had to do it. We talked about what planning he'd done for this, the downsides of this, what could happen, and how that could screw up a lot of things. At the end of the day, it's his country and he's the boss of it, and he's going to make his decision."
Before he walked into that room in Islamabad, Fallon had plenty of calls from Washington with instructions to pressure Musharraf down another path.
"I'll talk to him," Fallon replied. "There's an awful lot of china that could break. So I'll do it in a professional manner, because I still have to work with him."
As the admiral recounts the exchange, his voice is flat, his gaze steady. His calculus on this subject is far more complex than anyone else's. He is neither an idealist nor a fantasist. In Pakistan, he has the most volatile combination of forces in the world, yet he is deeply calm. "Did I tell President Musharraf this is not a recommended course of action? Of course. Did I tell him there are very negative effects that this could have? Of course. Is he aware of these? Yes.
"He's made his calculations. He feels very strongly that he's responsible for his country. His alternative is to step down. That would not be the most helpful thing for his country."
"It's a very immature democracy. Look at the history of the place. It's rough. Musharraf knows his country. He knows what he's got. Their factions, their tribes. There's that group of folks that wants nothing more than to start war with India, another group that wants to take over the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], another group that wants to take over part of Baluchistan. He's got a tough road. Most guys in his position do."
As for Washington's notion that Benazir Bhutto's return to the country would fix all that, Fallon is pessimistic. He slowly shakes his head. "Better forget that."
Less than two months later, of course, his rueful prophesy will be confirmed when Bhutto is murdered by militants in Rawalpindi.
Meanwhile, Fallon argues that with U. S. plans in the offing to arm Pashtun tribes against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the FATA, now would not seem to be the time to be pushing the democracy agenda in Pakistan.
When Fallon asked Musharraf, "How long do you expect to have to do it?" the general answered, "Not long." And twenty-four hours later, Fallon counseled patience. After all, he said, think about how strong America's military relationship is with Egypt despite Hosni Mubarak's twenty-seven-year "emergency rule."
But that doesn't mean the relationship building remains limited to just Musharraf, and so the rest of Fallon's long day in Islamabad was spent networking with General Ashfaq Kayani, former head of Pakistan's much-feared Interservices Intelligence agency and new chief of army staff. If Musharraf were ever to step or be pushed aside, Kayani is a leading contender to replace him.
But more to the point for Fallon, Kayani becomes the operational point man for any increased collaboration between the U. S. military and the Pakistani army to tackle the issues of the FATA, which a Centcom senior intelligence official calls "the huge elephant in the closet."
That's putting it mildly. The tribal region is where, according to our own National Intelligence Estimate last year, Al Qaeda was reconstituting its operational capacity, and was now in its strongest position since 9/11.
As with Pakistan, Fallon keeps his powder dry when he deals with Iran. He doesn't react like Pavlov's dog to inflammatory rhetoric from inflammatory little men. He understands the basic rule of international diplomacy: Everybody gets a move.
"Tehran's feeling pretty cocky right now because they've been able to inflict pain on us in Iraq and Afghanistan." So the trick, in Fallon's mind, is "to try to figure out what it is they really want and then, maybe--not that we're going to play Santa Claus here or the Good Humor Man--but the fact is that everyone needs something in this world, and so most countries that are functional and are contributing to the world have found a way to trade off their strengths for other strengths to help them out. These guys are trying to go it alone in this respect, and it's a bad gene pool right now. It's not one with much longevity. So they play that card pretty regularly, and at some point you just kind of run out of games, it seems to me. You've got to play a real card."
And when the real cards finally get played, that's when Fallon will double down.
The first thing you notice is the face, the second is the voice.
A tall, wiry man with thinning white hair, Fallon comes off like a loner even when he's standing in a crowd.
Despite having an easy smile that he regularly pulls out for his many daily exercises in relationship building, Fallon's consistent game face is a slightly pissed-off glare. It's his default expression. Don't fuck with me, it says. A tough Catholic boy from New Jersey, his favorite compliment is "badass." Fallon's got a fearsome reputation, although no one I ever talk to in the business can quite pin down why. There are the stories of his wilder days as a young officer, not the partying stuff but more the variety of rules bent to the breaking point, and he's been known as anything but a dove in his various commands, which makes his later roles as champion for engagement with both China and Iran all the more strange.
In keeping with the naval-officer tradition of emasculating bluntness, Fallon can without remorse cut the nuts off peers and subordinates alike. But it is more the intimation of his ferocity than its exercise that has the greatest effect. And Fallon has recently discovered that his reputation can leave him open to stories that might sound true but are not. Last fall, it was reported in the press that Fallon had called General Petraeus an "ass-kissing little chickenshit" for being so willing to serve as the administration's political frontman on the Iraq surge. The old man had told reporters that it hadn't happened like that--that that's not the way he operates, and, in fact, any time he talks with Petraeus, there are only two men in the room--the admiral and the general--and their exchanges remain private. And when they're not in the same room, "We e-mail each other constantly and talk by phone just about every day." Just the two of them, he says. No outsiders observing. The press sources had an overactive imagination, Fallon said. Now when the subject comes up, he dismisses it with a wave of his hand.
"Absolute bullshit," Fallon tells me.
Fallon and his executive assistant, Captain Craig Faller, say that they both suspect "staff agitation" to be behind the story. Interservice rivalry is mighty strong, and Admiral Fallon is the first navy man to be head of Centcom, so it's not hard for them to imagine somebody from the Army stirring the pot.
Fallon says the tip-off that the story was bogus was the word chickenshit. "My kids called me up laughing about that one, saying they knew the story wasn't true because I never use that word."
So put Fallon down as a "bullshit" and not a "chickenshit" kind of guy.
And in truth, Fallon's not a screamer. Indeed, by my long observation and the accounts of a dozen people, he doesn't raise his voice whatsoever, except when he laughs. Instead, the more serious he becomes, the quieter he gets, and his whispers sound positively menacing. Other guys can jaw-jaw all they want about the need for war-war with . . . whomever is today's target among D. C.'s many armchair warriors. Not Fallon. Let the president pop off. Fallon won't. No bravado here, nor sound-bite-sized threats, but rather a calm, leathery presence. Fallon is comfortable risking peace because he's comfortable waging war. And when he conveys messages to the enemies of the United States, he does it not in the provocative cowboy style that has prevailed in Washington so far this century, but with the opposite--a studied quiet that makes it seem as if he is trying to bend them to his will with nothing but the sound of his voice.
So when, during a press conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, Fallon whispers, "The public behavior of Iran has been unhelpful to the region," with his pissed-off glare and his slightly hoarse delivery, he is saying, I'm not making you an offer; I'm telling you what your options are right now.
"Iran should be playing a constructive role," he continues. "I hear this from every country in the region."
Translation: I've got you surrounded.
He'd rather not do it, but if he has to go to war, there won't be any anguish. Whatever qualms Fallon had about using force were exorcised long ago in the skies over Vietnam.
"I try to be reasonably predictable to my own people and very unpredictable to potential adversaries," he tells me.
No wonder 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. Which is the opposite of strategy. He knows this stuff cold, because he's had his hand on the stick for a very long time. The oldest of nine kids, Fallon's old man was a mailman in Merchantville, New Jersey, following his World War II stint in the Army Air Corps. As a boy, Fallon delivered newspapers, bagged groceries, worked in the local Campbell's Soup plant, and would become the first in his family to attend college. His dad's military experiences, along with those of several of his mom's brothers, naturally pushed him in the direction of West Point.
But his local congressman screwed up his application, and so Fallon chose the naval ROTC program at nearby Villanova, a Catholic haven that has produced three Centcom commanders. More than thirteen hundred carrier landings later, Fallon began his long climb through various combat command experiences--including Desert Storm and Bosnia--to the pinnacle of his profession: four four-star assignments that include vice chief of Naval Operations, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, and then boss of Pacific Command and Central Command in rapid succession.