It was a nice press conference. Secretary of Defense Gates praising Admiral Fallon for resigning just to clear up the fact that people THOUGHT there was a conflict between the Admiral and the President over Iran strategy. Unfortunately to believe that would require (as HRC once said) “Suspension of Disbelief” The Admiral is a great military strategist and has honored his country by serving it for so many years, but the fact is the Admiral DID disagree with the administration over so many different military issues it was an untenable situation.
The truth is that the Admiral has opposed the surge all along, and held no love for General Petraeus, he felt he was “an ass-kissing little chickenshit.” Fallon did not agree with the surge and had been disagreeing with it all along but now that it was an acknowledged victory, Fallon needed to stop fighting it—and never did.
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Yesterday’s resignation of Admiral William Fallon as Centcom Commander is being portrayed as a dispute over Iran. Our own sense is that the admiral has made more than enough dissenting statements about Iraq, Iran and other things to warrant his dismissal as much as early retirement. But his departure will be especially good news if it means that President Bush is beginning to pay attention to the internal Pentagon dispute over Iraq. A fateful debate is now taking place at the Pentagon that will determine the pace of U.S. military withdrawals for what remains of President Bush’s term. Senior Pentagon officials — including, we hear, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, Army Chief of Staff George Casey and Admiral Fallon — have been urging deeper troop cuts in Iraq beyond the five “surge” combat brigades already scheduled for redeployment this summer.Last month Mr. Gates agreed to a pause in these withdrawals, so that General David Petraeus could assess whether the impressive security gains achieved by the surge can be maintained with fewer troops. But now the Pentagon seems to be pushing for a pause of no more than four to six weeks before the drawdowns resume. It’s possible the surge has so degraded the insurgency — both of the al Qaeda and Shiite varieties — that the U.S. can reduce its troop presence to some undetermined level without inviting precisely the conditions that led to the surge in the first place. The withdrawal of one combat brigade from Iraq in December hasn’t affected the stunning declines in insurgent attacks and Iraqi civilian deaths over the past year. Then again, a spate of recent attacks — including a suicide bombing Monday that left five GIs dead in Baghdad and a roadside bombing yesterday that killed 16 Iraqis — is a reminder that the insurgency remains capable of doing great damage. An overly hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces would give it more opportunities to do so. It could also demoralize Iraq forces just when they are gaining confidence and need our help to “hold” the areas gained by the “clear, hold and build” strategy of the surge. This ought to be apparent to Pentagon generals. Yet their rationale for troop withdrawals seems to have less to do with conditions in Iraq and more with fear that the war is putting a strain on the military as an institution. These are valid concerns. Lengthy and repeated combat deployments have imposed extraordinary burdens on service members and their families. The war in Iraq has also diverted scarce funds to combat operations rather than investment — much of it long overdue — in military modernization. But these concerns are best dealt with by enlarging the size of the Army and Marine Corps and increasing spending on defense to between 5% and 6% of gross domestic product from the current 4.5% — about where it was at the end of the Cold War. By contrast, we can think of few things that would “break” the military more completely — in readiness, morale and deterrent power — than to leave Iraq in defeat, or in conditions that would soon lead to a replay of what happened in Vietnam.
This Pentagon pressure also does little to help General Petraeus. The general is supposed to be fighting a frontal war against Islamist militants, not a rearguard action with Pentagon officials. We understand there is a chain of command in the military, and General Petraeus is precisely the kind of team player who would respect it. That’s why as Commander in Chief, Mr. Bush has a particular obligation to engage in this Pentagon debate so that General Petraeus can make his troop recommendations based on the facts in Iraq, not on pressure from Washington. It was Mr. Bush’s excessive deference to the Army’s pecking order that put lackluster generals such as Ricardo Sanchez in charge when the insurgency was forming, and that prevented General Petraeus from assuming command in Iraq until it was nearly too late. Having successfully resisted pressure from Congressional Democrats for premature troop withdrawals, it would be strange indeed for Mr. Bush to cave in to identical pressure from his own bureaucracies. As a political matter, an overly rapid drawdown would also only complicate the choices the next President will have to make about troop levels, whether that’s John McCain or one of the Democratic contenders. Mr. Bush owes it to his successor to bequeath not only a stable Iraq, but also policy options that don’t tempt disaster. Preserving a troop cushion that allows for future withdrawals without jeopardizing current gains would do just that. That’s a decision that rests with Mr. Bush alone, who in seven years as President has often proved more adept and determined in fighting enemies abroad than imposing discipline on his own, so often wayward, Administration.