WASHINGTON -- For Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, the perception of a disagreement with President Bush's policies on Iran rather than an actual rift was enough reason to step down as the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.
"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 in a statement Tuesday in which he announced his resignation as head of U.S. Central Command, arguably the most important in the U.S. military.
An Esquire magazine article published last week described Fallon, 63, as being at odds with a president eager to go to war with Iran. Titled "The Man Between War and Peace," the article presented Fallon as a lone voice against taking military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
"I don't believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy in the Central Command area of responsibility," Fallon said in his statement Tuesday, and he regretted "the simple perception that there is."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Pentagon news conference that he accepted Fallon's request to resign and retire, agreeing that the Iran issue had become a distraction. But Gates said repeatedly that he believed talk of Fallon opposing Bush on Iran was mistaken.
"I don't think that there really were differences at all," Gates said, adding that Fallon was not pressured to leave.
"He told me that, quote, 'The current embarrassing situation, public perception of differences between my views and administration policy and the distraction this causes from the mission make this the right thing to do,' unquote," Gates told reporters.
Gates said he did not think it was the Esquire article alone that prompted Fallon to quit. Rather, Gates thought it was "a cumulative kind of thing" that he and Fallon had failed to put "behind us." He also dismissed as "ridiculous" any notion that Fallon's departure signals the United States is planning to go to war with Iran.
It is highly unusual for a senior commander to resign in wartime. Fallon took the post on March 16, 2007, succeeding Army Gen. John Abizaid, who retired after nearly four years in the job. Fallon was part of a new team of senior officials, including Gates, chosen by Bush to implement a revised Iraq war policy.
Fallon's departure, effective March 31, is unlikely to immediately affect conduct of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. His top deputy at Central Command, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, will take his place until a permanent successor is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Gen. David Petraeus, who runs the Iraq war from Baghdad but is technically subordinate to Fallon, was known to have differences with Fallon over the timing and pace of drawing down U.S. troops from Iraq. Fallon has favored a faster pullback. Petraeus issued a statement lauding Fallon's service.
Some Democrats in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, seized on Fallon's resignation to assert that it reflected an effort by the Bush administration to stifle dissenting opinion.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the White House played no role in Fallon's move. Bush praised Fallon in a statement as deserving "considerable credit for progress" in the region, "especially in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Morrell said it was too early to speculate on a successor.
Possible replacements could include:
—Petraeus, although Gates said recently that Bush had made it clear to him that he wanted to keep Petraeus in Iraq until late this year. He is likely to get a second four-star assignment, and some believe it might be as the top U.S. commander in Europe.
—Dempsey, although he already has been selected to head U.S. Army Europe.
—Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, just named to a top post on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and who had been commander of U.S. special operations forces in Iraq.
—Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who serves as Gates' senior military assistant and is a former senior commander in Iraq.
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