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Elizabeth Sullivan: Military stewardship in decline

It’s no doubt true, as a retired military friend puts it, that Adm. Fox Fallon just committed “career suicide by press.”

Fallon, after four decades of dedicated service as Navy officer and Vietnam combat pilot, knows what happens to the top gun who embarrasses his boss’s administration.

Especially when that embarrassment comes via a sprawling article in Esquire magazine that says, basically: Fallon, unfailingly brilliant; Bush administration, mulishly bad.

The troubling part is what brought Fallon to that point.

He’s the first Navy officer to head the military’s Central Command, now running both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one of the last top-ranking Vietnam combat veterans in uniform.

For surely Fallon knew he was “career detonating” by talking so openly with Esquire author Thomas P.M. Barnett. That’s the phrasing Fallon himself used last fall in describing his decision to take the Centcom job.

Fallon must have seen his career at a dead-end. It’s the depth of his personal and professional frustration that is worrisome.

Certainly, that’s confirmed by the alacrity with which the White House and Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed off on Fallon’s exit this week.

That Gates could so easily acquiesce to the departure of a handpicked officer he described just a year ago as strategically essential says everything one needs to know about the corrupted relationship that continues to sideline seasoned military hands in favor of politically attuned officers.

President Bush keeps saying he’s just following what his military commanders on the ground in Iraq say.

The implication is that Bush wants an assertive military to which he can defer.

Now we know Bush merely means he wants a military leadership that says what the White House wants to hear – as Gen. David Petraeus is doing in sticking with his “surge” in Iraq even after the additional manpower can no longer be so easily acquired.

Fallon wants more troops out of Iraq sooner, in part to shore up faltering military efforts in Afghanistan. Petraeus, technically Fallon’s subordinate, was not going to be overruled. And that suits the White House just fine.

It’s likely that this Petraeus-Fallon falling-out over what happens next in Iraq is what spurred Fallon’s early departure.

After all, President Bush this week told a national religious broadcasters’ convention in Nashville that the “ideological struggle” in Iraq can’t be lost – and that the surge is working.

Now, conveniently, Fallon will not be around to challenge that rosy view.

Equally conveniently – and alarmingly – his departure also makes it easier for hard-liners led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who want a tougher line with Iran, to sideline any other military naysayers.

Fallon forcefully expressed a view acquired during years in the Pacific – that strategic patience, planning, engagement and a policy of non-confrontation work best with potential U.S. military adversaries such as China and Iran.

It’s a sensible doctrine. Yet even if it isn’t immediately eclipsed by Fallon’s exit, it will appear that way to many overseas.

And as for Pakistan – Fallon’s departure signals that the inroads he was able to make in repeated personal trips, in closer military ties with that country’s new army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, are not considered particularly crucial.

What matters most are loyalty and obedience within the military command pyramid.

It’s a sad and dispiriting commentary on the quality of military stewardship five years into a mistaken war.


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