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On Admiral Fallon's Departure

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Message Daniel Smith

Once again sensationalized domestic news has shielded the Bush administration from embarrassing questions and congressional probes about a singular event affecting foreign policy: the unexpected resignation of U.S Central Command Commander Admiral William “Fox” Fallon.

That, of course, has not stopped the columnists and the opinion molders from weighing in either supporting or attacking the Admiral and, in the process, missing the fundamental principles involved. Admiral Fallon, at least according to those who know and work with him, is by temperament quite able to defend himself against all criticism. Equally, I suspect he is quite capable of exuding the polished demeanor one would expect from an experienced diplomat, given his years as Commander Pacific Command and Commander Central Command. I never met or worked for Admiral Fallon, so I leave to those who do know him to address how he integrated these facets with the rest of his personality.  

More important are the constitutional and other principles and military traditions that came into play over the past weeks leading to Fallon’s request for early retirement. A good starting point for unraveling the knot that ties all the strands together is the second hour of Tom Ashbrook’s “On Point” for March 13th, “The Admiral, The White House, and the Pentagon.” It can be accessed on National Public Radio’s web site at 

Ashbrook assembled five guests – a journalist, a former National Security Advisor, a retired ambassador, and two retired generals, Volney Warner, who commanded Readiness Command, the forerunner of today’s Central Command, and William Nash, who led the first U.S. division into Bosnia-Herzegovina under the UN mandate to quell the violence and chaos that had engulfed the country from the day it declared itself independent from the disintegrating Yugoslav Republic. 

Let me be candid about my own position. I remain quite suspicious that Admiral Fallon was “encouraged” by someone quite senior in the administration (perhaps in the Vice-President’s office?)  – and perhaps “warned” by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (also an admiral) or others on the Joint Staff that the President was displeased  by some of his statements – to step down. I seem to recall that when Fallon was selected as Commander Pacific Command there was grumbling among the anti-Beijing crowd in Washington that he would on a day-to-day basis press diplomacy and cooperative endeavors with the Chinese much further than his predecessor, Admiral Timothy Fargo. 

One point that I found most interesting as the two generals and Ashbrook discussed what had happened was the different “strategic horizons” of Naval and Army officers. This put me in mind immediately of the distinction in Article I of the Constitution which assigns to Congress the power and the duty to “raise an army and to maintain a navy.” 

Growing up I can remember still that teachers, commentators, and even historians attributed the distinction in the “action” by Congress to the experience of the colonists when the British determined to station a “standing army” in the more “rebellious” communities in New England and New York and quarter the troops in the civilian communities. 

While this did happen, it struck me that this was an example of the type of “lowered” horizon that Army officers and civilians who do not travel widely would more likely have than a naval officer.  The alternative or complimentary explanation for the War of Rebellion focuses on the fact that a number of the prominent supporters of the War were either merchants or ship owners whose economic fortunes depended on their ability to trade with the rest of the world – a “right” that they alleged that Parliament and the king were circumscribing. So having removed these impediments by government, they were interested in having the new federal government aid their economic endeavors by requiring a “standing Navy” (augmented by privateers with letters of marquis) to counter pirates and maintain access to sea lanes. 

This focus on economics is also a “limited horizon,” but less so than the first.  And that brings me to the point. While it is too much to assert that the Framers were engaging in “Grand Strategy” when they directed that Congress maintain a navy, the fact that Europe lay only 3,000 miles and not 8,000 miles from the Atlantic coastline permitted the Framers to envision the benefits beyond those arising from simple trade that would accrue if American diplomats could call upon U.S. warships as symbols of the presence of a new nation on the world scene as well as for patrolling the high seas.  

Was this, in fact, the model for the diplomat-warrior (originally, the only military presence in U.S. embassies were naval attaches) which, sometime after WWII, became inverted to the warrior-diplomat, the “pro-consul”? Fallon, despite his uniform, in practical terms was modeling the diplomat-warrior, which I suspect rankled other senior officers and administration civilians. Add to that the fact that Congress has abdicated its position as a co-equal branch of government, and someone like Fallon is left with two options should he disagree with policy: work to change the orders he receives or go public and  resign/retire.  

In our presidential system, once elected, the president remains commander-in-chief with his appointees in control of the military until the next general election. The only recourse available to stop a president running amok before the next ballot is impeachment. But a Congress that has abdicated its responsibilities will not impeach – leaving the ordinary citizen to suffer as many as 48 months through the folly that we call war. 

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Colonel Daniel M. Smith graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1966. His initial assignment was with the 3rd Armor Division in (more...)

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