Push For New Direction Leads To Sudden Dead End For A 40-Year Naval Career

FLORENCE, Italy–HIS friends call him Fox, and for years William J. Fallon was considered one of America’s most successful four-star admirals, serving most recently as the commander of military operations in the territory stretching from the Horn of Africa across Central Asia.

Now, the 63-year-old former aviator is struggling with reinvention, nudged into early retirement in March after a 40-year naval career because of his blunt talk that left the perception he was disloyal to his commander in chief.

Breaking his silence since his departure in an hourlong interview, Admiral Fallon said he had felt the pressure building for several months. He had, after all, taken public positions favoring diplomacy over force in Iran, troop withdrawals from Iraq that were greater than officially planned and more high-level attention to Afghanistan.

But the catalyst for his departure was not a policy disagreement with the White House, he said; it was an article in Esquire magazine this year that portrayed him as the man standing between President Bush and war against Iran.

If the admiral’s comments had been kept behind the closed doors of the White House and the Pentagon, he might have survived. The problem was that in the highly hierarchical world of the military, in which the cardinal rule is to salute — not break ranks with — the president, his dissent was simply too public.

The admiral claims not to have been misquoted, but to have been misunderstood.

“There was a huge perception that I was publicly at odds with the president, which was not true,” he said. “I had serious concerns that my subordinates — my soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines — had that perception. It put me in a difficult position. I felt very uncomfortable.”

But he acknowledged that he had shaken Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., after he arrived in March 2007, both by making crystal clear that he, and not the battlefield commanders, was in charge and by making changes that rankled people in and out of the military.

His management style was criticized; his on-the-record comments about policy raised eyebrows.

Some of the issues were petty: the injection of ceremonial Navy traditions to a gritty command never before headed by an admiral, including the designation of the command’s main stairwell as off limits to all but generals and admirals, and the creation of a private dining room where office space had been.

Others were more substantive, like an ambitious job-reduction effort aimed at slashing the command’s staff of 3,400 and assigning his own people to review others’ decisions.

“I wanted us to get focused on Iraq and Afghanistan at a high level, not just rubber-stamping every request, or whatever that was coming out of Baghdad,” he said. Acknowledging a streak of impatience, he added, “This was not the time to be sitting around clinking teacups.”

He was not helped by the fact that he was a Navy man with overall responsibility over two wars involving American ground troops, and a commander with a reputation for liberal leanings in a hawkish administration.

AS commander of the Pacific Command between 2005 and 2007, he had been criticized by conservatives for cozying up to China at a time when the country was rapidly modernizing its armed forces.

During his one-year tenure as head of the Central Command, he proposed a navy-to-navy relationship with Iran as a way to begin a sustained dialogue with the country after nearly three decades without diplomatic relations, Bush administration officials said, speaking anonymously according to normal diplomatic rules.

The proposal was not revolutionary; other commanders had floated such an idea before. But it was quickly rejected by the White House as rewarding Tehran, the officials said.

Admiral Fallon declined to discuss the initiative, although he acknowledges that he favors dialogue and patience, not war, with Iran, and that the Navy could provide a way to begin the process.

“In the conduct of daily business, we routinely have excellent communications with the Iranian Navy,” he said. “When the conditions are right, it might be a reasonable way of interaction — to build on existing maritime communications.”

Even now, he defends his public statements on Iran that stress diplomacy over the use of force. “People tend to look at things in black and white — we’re going to love Iran or attack Iran,” he said. “That is a very simplistic way to approach a complex problem.”

He said he found it impossible to convince people that stories about disputes with David H. Petraeus, the four-star Army general who was the top commander in Iraq and replaced him at the Central Command when he retired, were overblown. “He’s a smart guy,” Admiral Fallon said.

But then he acknowledged that there had been differences, and he did not contradict reports that at one point General Petraeus had wanted as many troops on the ground in Iraq as possible, while he had favored substantial reductions.

“Did we agree on everything? No,” he said of their relationship. “Did he want everything? Yes. And that’s just the way it is. But we talked just about every day.” He added, “He’s an Army guy, a bit more rigid, less risk.”

As the operational commander with day-to-day responsibilities for Iraq, General Petraeus enjoyed a direct line of communication with the White House, which Admiral Fallon, the strategic overseer, did not. So there was also the pecking-order problem.

The admiral’s departure from the military was so abrupt that he veers between the present and the past in discussing his old job.

“I was Petraeus’s boss,” he said. “I asked a lot of questions, which is my nature. And the answers better match up with what I have seen.”

Asked about a Washington newspaper column that said he had been squeezed out because he was “rigid” and “overbearing,” he replied: “I don’t tolerate fools. I challenge every briefing and pitch. If people present me with only one solution to the problem, I’m the type to reject it immediately.”

This is, he said, “a no-nonsense business. I’m not getting paid to be a nice guy.”

ADMIRAL Fallon started his military career through the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, which he joined to pay his way through Villanova University. He flew combat missions in Vietnam, commanded a carrier air wing in the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and later led the naval battle group supporting NATO operations in Bosnia. Along the way, he developed diplomatic skills, taking the unusual step in 2001, for example, of apologizing to Japan and to the relatives of those killed in the accidental sinking of a Japanese fishing trawler by an American submarine.

The rawness of his transition into private life was revealed in his public coming out as the keynote speaker at a terrorism conference hosted by New York University’s Center on Law and Security in Florence last week.

He admitted that he finally understood the indecision of his daughters over what to wear and the challenge of deciding what personal effects to move to a new home in the Washington area after keeping most things in storage for 20 years.

“I have to confess to — how should I put this — a bit of uncertainty in my own future, because until a few weeks ago I had things pretty orderly in front of me,” he said. But those in the audience who said they were expecting insider-tells-all revelations about the terrorist threat came away disappointed.

In the interview, he declined to directly criticize current policies, although he urged the next administration to focus more on strategic planning. “We need to have a well-thought-out game plan for engagement in the world that we adjust regularly and that has some system of checks and balances built into it,” he said.

He is thinking about writing a book, but jokes that such a project could pose a challenge. In his Catholic high school in Camden, N.J., he opted for third-year Latin instead of typing. So he may have to learn how to type.

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