The White House on Wednesday rejected charges that it quashes dissenting views in the military, an accusation brought to light by the resignation of Navy Adm. William J. Fallon as commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.
For Fallon, the perception of a disagreement with Bush's policies on Iran rather than an actual rift was enough reason to step down.
"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.
Wartime resignation criticized
Democrats seized on Fallon's resignation as an opportunity to criticize Bush.
"Over the last seven Bush years, we've seen those who toe the company line get rewarded and those who speak inconvenient truths get retired," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in a written statement.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., echoed Kerry's comment and said, "The last thing America needs is an echo chamber of top advisers, especially on all-important questions of war and peace."
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 Defense Secretary Robert Gates, chosen by Bush to implement a revised Iraq war policy.
White House press secretary Dana Perino called the charges of stifling dissent "nonsense."
"The president welcomes robust and healthy debate," she said. "He has many members of his administration that represent different viewpoints. He has dissenting views on a variety of issues that get worked out through a policy process that is usually not fed out in the press."
"There's no one in the administration that is suggesting other than a diplomatic approach to Iran," Perino said.
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."
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.
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.
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.