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Bush Dissenter: ‘Don’t Start a War With Iran’

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/fallon013007.jpgAdm. William "Fox" Fallon (WDCPix)

In a roundtable Tuesday, Adm. William “Fox” Fallon, the former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East ousted for dissenting from the Bush administration’s bellicose posture toward Iran, gave a rare public elaboration of his view of multilateral cooperation for security in the region.

In one of his first public appearances after his abrupt departure as head of U.S. Central Command, Fallon said at the National Press Club that Gulf countries “clearly recognize that the U.S. plays a strong leadership role,” and desire that to continue. Further, they ask the U.S. “to be active” in the region — though part of being active, he said, included the advice “don’t start a war” with Iran. He opted, however, to largely avoid discussing the Iran controversy that had cost him his job.

It is still unclear whether Fallon resigned or was fired. In March, Esquire published a profile of Fallon that emphasized his points of disagreement with the Bush administration’s repeated statements about confronting Iran militarily. His comment were was much discussed around the Pentagon, and, on Mar. 11, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that Fallon was resigning.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

While the admiral would not talk about anything involving his disagreements with the administration on Tuesday, Fallon told Charlie Rose on Monday, “if our people, our troops, the men and women in uniform, particularly out in the combat zones, with all that we had going on, had an idea, however they acquired it, that their commander was at odds with their commander in chief, that is a situation which is intolerable to my mind.”

At the Press Club, Fallon said, “We have a very strong vested interest in regional security,” speaking to an audience assembled by the Century Foundation. “We need to remain engaged, and the U.S., as the only superpower, is needed to lead that [effort] whether we want to or not. But I think we will want to.”

Along with Paul Hughes, a former Army colonel now with the U.S. Institute of Peace, the foundation asked Fallon to comment on a recent paper about the U.S. military posture in the Persian Gulf by Lawrence Korb, a Reagan-era Pentagon official now with the liberal Center for American Progress. Korb contends that the U.S. military should reduce its ground-force presence in the region to an out-of-sight capability, able to deal with contingencies and deter adversaries, but not provocative to Arab or Persian nationalism. Korb also argues that the United States should use its remaining presence to anchor “collective regional security arrangements” with partner nations in the Gulf.

Fallon did not sound particularly dovish on Iran, however. He characterized the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as an unprofessional and threatening force. When asked to comment on a proposal of his, made during his Central Command tenure, that ties between the U.S. and Iranian navies be used as an entry point for dialogue, Fallon called the plan merely “a discussion point.” He cautioned that 30 years’ worth of diplomatic formal non-communication between Washington and Tehran should prevent “bleeding hearts of pounding joy that this yields a national dialogue, especially given the behavior of Iran recently.”

Additionally, Fallon predicted a reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq, though he dissented from Korb’s position that all U.S. troops should leave the country and anticipated a transition away from “combat forces” and toward advising Iraqi security forces. In the wake of such a withdrawal, Fallon said, “the presence of U.S. forces in the region [should] come down as things stabilize in Iraq.” The U.S. will “move to more of an air and naval presence… more of the offshore presence… the idea that we’ll have a lot of land forces in the region strikes me as unlikely.”

A general point of agreement on the panel was that Washington should pursue collective security in the Persian Gulf to ensure regional stability and access to oil. “We need to work with the rest of the world to have access to this global treasure,” Hughes remarked. Korb noted that the “era of American hegemony, if it existed in the ’90s, is ending,” and urged the opening of formal diplomatic talks with Iran. Fallon, Korb and Hughes all agreed that China and India, whose interest in Middle Eastern oil is growing with their own energy needs, should be included in talks about the region’s future.

Ian Moss, a co-author of the Korb report, welcomed Fallon’s remarks, even if they were occasionally circumspect. “He was at times cautious but overall he supported the point that there needs to be much more of an international, open discourse to address security concerns in the region,” said Moss, a Marine who left active duty in 2002. All other attendees at the panel approached for comment about Fallon declined to be quoted.

Fallon emphasized the need for coherence in setting foreign policy. “A priority for me is to set a national strategy for the world and then work down to the [Middle East] region,” he said. On stability and security in the Mideast, “we’d like to remove friction [that] would lead to conflict.”

*Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Ian Moss as a veteran of the war in Iraq. We regret the error. *

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