At the time, I took that comment to be mere self-effacement. I have since come to think that Fallon was deadly serious.
Weeks later, back in that hotel lounge in
But something else came up.
When the Admiral took charge of Pacific Command in 2005, he immediately set about a military-to-military outreach to the Chinese armed forces, something that had plenty of people freaking out at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The Chinese, after all, were scheduled to be our next war. What the hell was Fallon doing?
Contrary to some reports, though, Fallon says he initially had no trouble with then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld on the subject. "Early on, I talked to him. I said, Here's what I think. And I talked to the president, too."
It was only after the Pentagon and Congress started realizing that their favorite "programs of record" (i.e., weapons systems and major vehicle platforms) were threatened by such talks that the shit hit the fan. "I blew my stack," Fallon says. "I told Rumsfeld, Just look at this shit. I go up to the Hill and I get three or four guys grabbing me and jerking me out of the aisle, all because somebody came up and told them that the sky was going to cave in."
But Fallon stood down the
For Fallon, that meant an emphasis on opening new lines of communication and reducing the capacity for misunderstanding during times of crisis. But beyond that, it meant telling the Chinese, "If you want to be treated as a big boy and a major player, you've got to act like it."
If you want recognition of your power, then you have to accept the responsibility that comes with such power. That's the essential message Fallon delivered to the Chinese, and if that meant he was out of line with the Pentagon's take on rising China, then so be it. If it seemed as though Fallon was downplaying the threat of North Korea's missiles, it was because he preferred pushing a regional response that signaled a united front but still left the door open for North Korea to come in from the cold.
Fallon now brings the same approach to
"Oh, absolutely, eventually. It's like the Chinese," he says. "It would be great if
So how does something like this happen?
How do you turn
You start down low, says one of Fallon's senior intelligence officials. For example, there's the shared interest in stemming the flow of narcotics from
"I don't know as much as I'd like about
Early in his tenure at Pacific Command, Fallon let it be known that he was interested in visiting the city of
The local Chinese commander was beside himself. It was the first time in his life he had ever met an American military officer, and here he was at the bottom of a jet ramp waiting for the all-powerful head of the United States Pacific Command to descend. Then, to his horror, he realized that Fallon had brought his wife, Mary, along for the trip. Scrambling to arrange the evening banquet, the Chinese commander brought his own wife out in public for the first time ever.
When the time came for dinner toasts, after the Chinese commander thanked Mrs. Fallon for coming, the admiral returned the favor by thanking the commander's wife for her many years of service as a military spouse. The commander's wife broke down in tears, saying it was the first time in her entire marriage that she had been publicly recognized for her many sacrifices.
And there was peace in our time.
Fallon is what is called a "four-star action officer," meaning he tries to do too many things himself. He spends no more than a week each month in
Fallon travels at least three weeks out of each month, spending, on average, two weeks in theater, meaning the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and
It's an unseasonably warm early-winter morning in
It's like riding in a car with the biggest asshole in the world behind the wheel. We almost pass Fallon's vehicle--time after time--only to slam on the brakes, slip back behind, lurch over to the other side, and do the same thing. A word of advice: Don't do this on a heavy breakfast. Fallon's personal enlisted aide, strapped in next to us, says our driver is actually being fairly mellow, on the admiral's orders. That's good to hear, as the streets are full of women and children on foot.
Thirty minutes after we've left the maze of barricades that line every entrance into the Green Zone, giving the place a sort of Maxwell Smart sense of never-ending doors, we arrive at a military airport where two Black Hawk UH-60's await. I ride with Fallon's senior aides in the second one. I am strapped into a four-part harness, the body armor keeping me well cocooned. Minutes after takeoff, as is the universal custom among military personnel, everyone but the personal-security-detail soldiers is asleep.
I scan the moonscape that is the mountains west of
Traveling at high speed, we've been dipping ever so gently around the mountains as we travel to Bamiyan Province, ancient home to the giant Buddhas that are no more--parting shots from the once and future Taliban. I can spot Fallon's Black Hawk out the window, framed from above by the sky and below by the barrel of a large machine gun sticking out of our helicopter's side. It's manned by a rather short fellow whose face is almost completely obscured by his Star Wars blast shield.
The view is amazing and reminds me why banditry and smuggling remain dominant industries here. Every road seems to lie at the bottom of a narrow, meandering ravine, and every walled compound looks like a fort out of
We alight from the Black Hawks after touching down on a strip of asphalt located in the center of the wide, flat plain that is
We're met at the landing zone by the Kiwi colonel, Brendon Fraher, who leads a small unit of New Zealand's finest civil-affairs specialists operating out of a small fort a few clicks away. The camp is home to a Provincial Reconstruction Team manned by the Kiwis, who work hand in glove with U. S. State Department, U. S. Agency for International Development, and ISAF personnel in coordinating coalition reconstruction aid to this province.
As we head to a convoy of armored Ford F-350 pickups, Fallon says that Fraher reports two enemy rockets landed nearby yesterday, but other than that, all's quiet. We speed off to meet the only female provincial governor in
Fallon--who's done this sort of thing so often, he seems to glide through the protocol--zeroes in on Governor Habiba Sarabi, a middle-aged woman of average height who's dressed in a reform sort of way--head covered but face exposed. Despite all our accompanying security, you've got to believe she's the biggest Taliban target in the room.
Tea is served and formal greetings are exchanged with no need for translation, as the governor speaks English with calculated fluency, a skill she demonstrates a half hour into the meeting, when Fallon makes clear that he wants to hear her complaints.
It's a tricky moment for Sarabi, because she's basically critiquing Western aid and the military agencies represented by the officials surrounding her now. It's like bitching about your parents in front of Child Protective Services: Strike the right note and you might suddenly find yourself free of them for good.
Speaking about a road long-promised by
Fallon aggressively queries the assembled officials in order, running from the deputy chief of mission at the
With obvious passion, Sarabi interrupts the proceedings with a stream of complaints about the length and complexity of USAID's planning process. This is where her fluency in English suddenly falters, as Sarabi's sentences start trailing off, leading the assembled officials to fill in the blanks.
"It is very . . . "
"Long?" chimes in the USAID official.
"And there is such a lack of . . . ahh." Sarabi raises a finger to her chin, scanning the far wall as if the word lingers there.
"Coordination?" offers the deputy chief of mission.
"It all makes me so incredibly . . . how do you say?"
"Mad?" one officer suggests.
It's almost like an auction now as the bids keep rising. I'm just about ready to toss in my personal favorite, "pissed off," when Fallon weighs in with "frustrated"--no question mark.
Sarabi turns toward the admiral, a sly smile passes across her face.
Fallon starts probing yet again, this time cutting off officials, as their answers obscure rather than illuminate.
Emboldened, the governor piles on with a new complaint: Every winter, a local river becomes impassable for a local migratory tribe that is then stranded outside the valley.
Fallon asks the deputy chief of mission, "Are you aware of this?"
The DCM replies, "No, I wasn't, and I promise to look into that."
Fallon's on a roll now, and the governor is beaming, but his efforts soon head into a bureaucratic cul-de-sac that no one in the room can fix.
Fallon cuts him off and turns to the governor. "I tell you what, I'm not getting a satisfactory answer here. I'll be honest. I don't think we can do anything for you this winter. However, I will try to get, from many miles away, a screwdriver big enough to push this process for next year."
The governor immediately thanks Fallon for his promise.
Fallon doesn't forget details like that. Six months earlier, he noticed that the American flag flying outside the Hyatt hotel in
Unlike his Arabic-speaking predecessor, Army General John Abizaid, Fox Fallon wasn't selected to lead U. S. Central Command for his regional knowledge or cultural sensitivity, but because he is, says Secretary of Defense Gates, "one of the best strategic thinkers in uniform today."
If anything has been sorely missing to date in
Waiting on perfect security or perfect politics to forge economic relationships is a fool's errand. By the time those fantastic conditions are met in this dangerous, unstable part of the world, somebody less idealistic will be running the place--the Russians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians, Turks, Iranians, Saudis. That's why Fallon has been aggressively hawking his southern strategy of encouraging a north-south "energy corridor" between the Central Asian republics and the energy-starved-but-booming Asian subcontinent (read:
On this trip, he's been shepherding a new bridge that links isolated
So what should
But this part of the world is defined by its fortresses, and is not known for willingly connecting to the outside world.
On the eve of Fallon's arrival, President Emomali Rahmon intervened and extended the bridge's operating schedule to eight hours a day, admitting to Fallon in their first summit that he needs to do more to champion the economic potential.
But Fallon doesn't stop there. Immediately following his meeting with Rahmon, he meets face-to-face with the highly secretive Abdurahimov, who almost never meets with foreign officials.
Just as with Musharraf, Fallon does not preach. He suggests, he encourages, he cajoles, he offers, and he debates, but he does not preach--save the gospel of economic connectivity. Even there, he is not eager to appear competitive with any regional power. "I don't want to create the impression that we're just replacing the Russians," he says.
He just wants a damn bridge.
Fallon gets his bridge.
Fallon's got a spread in a little town in
While Condoleezza Rice and the State Department manage a vague endgame on the two-state solution in
The rollback of Al Qaeda seems to be both real and continuing, save for the border region of
"What I learned in the Pacific is that after a while the tableau of failed, failing, or dysfunctional states becomes a real burden on the functional countries and a problem for their neighborhood, because they breed unrest and insecurities and attract troublemakers very well. They're like sewers, and they begin to fester. It's bad for business. And when it's bad for business, people tend to start restricting their investments, and they restrict their thinking, and it allows more barriers, so we're back to building walls again instead of breaking them down. If you have to build walls, it means you're moving backward."
Fallon has no illusion about solving the Middle East or
"I'd like to continue to do things that will be useful to the world and its inhabitants," he says. "I've seen a lot of good things, and I've seen a lot of stupid things."
And then there is
Just the kind of incident that doughy neocons dream sweetly about. Right after the new year, three American ships were passing through the Strait of Hormuz, exchanging normal greetings with
The Iranians dropped boxes in the water, simulating mines.
"Remember," he says, "my first day on this job, I was greeted by the IRGC snatching the British sailors, and so it was a sense of here we go again. You wonder, Are they really acting on their own, because the pattern seems clear."
Fallon's eyes narrow and his voice becomes that whisper: "This is not how a country that wants to be a big boy in the neighborhood behaves. How are we supposed to take these guys seriously as players in the region? You'd like to deal with them as big-league players, but when they do this, it's very tough."
As before, there is the text and the subtext. Admiral William Fallon shakes his head slowly, and his eyes say, These guys have no idea how much worse it could get for them. I am the reasonable one.
And time will tell whether being reasonable will cost Admiral William Fallon his command.
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