The inside story of the battle between Adm. William J. Fallon, former head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, may be studied by military historians years hence. The animosity between the two top military men was personal (Petraeus reportedly thought Fallon was trying to micromanage him). It was political (Petraeus is President Bush’s favorite general, while Fallon’s views put him increasingly at odds with the administration). And it was strategic (Petraeus’ mission is to win in Iraq, while Fallon feared an extended heavy presence there would sap U.S. strength needed to deal with other global challenges).
Predictably, the right says that Fallon, who abruptly resigned Tuesday, was insubordinate and wrong about the so-called surge. The left charges that Bush gets rid of military advisors whose counsel he dislikes. In fact, the clash of the military titans may have been less ideological than institutional. Field generals always want more troops for as long as possible, to minimize casualties and avoid giving up battlefield gains. The top brass in Washington are paid to plan the endgame and prepare for the next conflict, which is why tensions between Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will persist after Fallon. But the clash also reflects an agonizing U.S. national security dilemma that won’t be settled on Nov. 4: How long can we afford to keep fighting in Iraq, and who will be forced to take the fall for “losing Iraq” if we stop?
The timing of Fallon’s resignation is provocative. In less than a month, Petraeus will testify again before Congress. The troop surge he recommended is coming to an end in July, as scheduled, because even with extended 15-month deployments, the Army has no more troops to send. The U.S. will be back to its pre-surge troop strength of 130,000, although many military analysts believe that it can sustain a deployment of only 80,000 to 90,000 without breaking the back of the Army. Nevertheless, Petraeus is expected to ask for a “strategic pause” in further troop withdrawals in order not to jeopardize the much-improved security climate in Iraq. Petraeus will be grilled on whether the less than impressive Iraqi political progress justifies an extended U.S. troop presence.
Petraeus is a soldier, not a politician, but his ambitions and timetable coincide nicely with those of Bush and the Republican Party: Keep as many forces in Iraq as possible through early fall, but promise drawdowns before the end of the year. That might just keep the Iraq war from intruding on a presidential campaign dominated by the economy, and let the risk that “failure” in Iraq has only been postponed devolve to the next administration. If Iraq holds steady, Petraeus will be a national hero and Fallon a footnote. But if, in January, Iraq is still being held together by Band-Aids, Fallon’s concerns won’t be so easily be dismissed.