Top U.S. Commander In Mideast Quits

Adm. William Fallon, the commander of U.S. Forces in the Middle East, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 4, 2008, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the fiscal 2009 defense authorization and future defense programs. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
AP Photo/Dennis Cook
The top U.S. military commander for the Middle East resigned Tuesday amid speculation about a rift over U.S. policy in Iran.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Adm. William J. Fallon had asked for permission to retire and that Gates agreed. Gates said the decision, effective March 31, was entirely Fallon's and that Gates believed it was "the right thing to do."

Fallon was the subject of an article published last week in Esquire magazine that portrayed him as opposed to President Bush's Iran policy. It described Fallon as a lone voice against taking military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Separately, the New York Times reported that there was "no question" that Fallon's departure was prompted by policy differences with the White House, and with Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq.

The newspaper said senior officials in the Bush administration were unhappy with remarks Fallon has made about Iran and the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq.

Fallon was out of step with the White House almost from the day he took over the U.S. Central Command, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. On his first trip to Iraq, he allowed a reporter for the New York Times to accompany him to a meeting at which he lectured Prime Ministrer Maliki on the need for political reform. A source close to Fallon says that earned him phone calls from Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Rice and National Security Adviser Hadley. Afterwards, Fallon said he had "two strikes against me" and lamented ever taking the job.

Martin reports there will be a lot of speculation that Fallon's departure clears the decks for war with Iran before the Bush leaves office, despite the fact that Secretary Gates twice called the notion "ridiculous."

It is not known how Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who will replace Fallon as the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, feels about war with Iran, but it's a safe bet he's against it, Martin reports. Virtually every senior military officer is against it, and Dempsey, who has spent a lot of time in Iraq, knows first hand how that war has pushed the Army close to the breaking point. As Fallon's deputy, he also knows the U.S. still needs more troops in Afghanistan. No one in the American military is interested in a wider war, but from now on they might be more cautious about how they say it.

Fallon, who is traveling in Iraq, issued a statement through his U.S. headquarters in Florida.

"Recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the president's policy objectives have become a distraction at a critical time and hamper efforts in the Centcom region," Fallon said.

"And although I don't believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy in the Central Command area of responsibility, the simple perception that there is makes it difficult for me to effectively serve America's interests there," Fallon added.

Gates dismissed the notion that Fallon's departure signals the United States is planning to go to war with Iran. And he said "there is a misperception" that Fallon disagrees with the administration's approach to Iran.

"I don't think there were differences at all," Gates added.

Fallon has had a 41-year Navy career. He took the Central Command post on March 16, 2007, succeeding Army Gen. John Abizaid, who retired. Fallon previously served as commander of U.S. Pacific Command.

Bush issued a statement saying that Fallon "has served our nation with great distinction for forty years. He is an outstanding sailor - and he made history as the first naval officer to serve as commander of Central Command."

Gates said that until a permanent replacement is nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Fallon's place will be taken by his top deputy, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey.

The secretary called Fallon a very able military strategist and said his advice will be missed at the Pentagon.

"I think this is a cumulative kind of thing," said Gates, speaking of the circumstances leading up to Fallon's decision. "It isn't the result of any one article or any one issue."

"As I say, the notion that this decision portends anything in terms of change in Iran policy is, to quote myself, 'ridiculous,' " he said.