At first glance, the appointment leaked last week makes no sense. Admiral William Fallon is a brave, decorated, immensely experienced Navy aviator who in recent year also enjoyed great success as running PACOM, the U.S. armed forces' Pacific Command. That has long been an overwhelmingly naval and air asset strategic theater. Fallon also excelled in working closely with the Bush administration's nationals security team for the Pacific Rim and East Asia in sending a united message to China and the nations of Northeast and Southeast Asia that the United States was in earnest in its determination to maintain and enforce its traditional security role in the region. But he has little recent experience in the Middle East and none in commanding ground forces in land battles.
Fallon is an expert in the project of maritime-based air power. That has certainly been a significant component of continuing U.S. military operations in Iraq, against Sunni insurgent forces as well as in the brief, heady, three-week drive to Baghdad that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in March-April 2003. But he has had no experience whatsoever in commanding any U.S. forces fighting guerilla insurgencies in either rural or urban settings. And the complexities of the Iraq conflict certainly demand that.
It is certainly true that the other new commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who will succeed Gen, George W. Casey Jr., as U.S. and coalition ground forces commander there more than makes up for any lack of experience or deficiencies Admiral Fallon has in those areas. Petraeus has built up an enviable record as probably the most successful, innovative and adaptable U.S. ground forces commander in Iraq. He has adapted faster and better to the challenges of counter-insurgency war than any other senior U.S. Army officer by general, albeit not unanimous, consensus. He also commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the March 2003 invasion of Iraq
Still, historically, having theater commanders from different services, or with no hands-on experience of the problems their ground forces commanders face, has been a difficult and sometimes catastrophic combination to put into military theater. Fallon and Petraeus could clash: Fallon's lack of appreciation of the problems that ground forces face could prove dangerous down the line. Historically senior U.S. Navy and Air Force officers have always been far more hawkish and over confident about what their air striking arm can accomplish and about how quickly and easily ground forces can carry out the mission goals assigned to them than Army and Marine Corps commanders familiar with the messy realities and uncertainties of modern ground combat have been. That was true in Vietnam. And it is also true now in Iraq.
Indeed, it is an open secret in the corridors of the Pentagon that one reason President Bush gave the CENTCOM command to Adm. Fallon and charged him with enforcing the new troop surge policy in it is that no comparable Army four-star would touch it with barge pole. The Washington Post reported on Dec. 21 that the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, and other top ranking Army generals including Gen. John P Abizaid, the current CENTCOM chief whom Bush has effectively sacked, had vigorously opposed and criticized the policy but were over-ridden by the White House backed by its civilian analysts in the National Security Council. It is certainly striking that over the past couple of weeks, neo-conservative commentators in the U.S. media still supportive of the Bush administration have started sneering at the Army generals as "defeatists."
However, there is another reason increasingly discussed on U.S. national security and military blogs and Web sites why Adm. Fallon was given the CENTCOM job. If the Bush administration either plans to launch air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities in the foreseeable future, or if it expects any significant Iranian offensive operations against U.S. forces in Iraq, in the Persian Gulf region, or against U.S allies in the Gulf, then Adm. Fallon's appointment, and his vast experience in directing carrier-borne air strikes makes far more sense.
There is another reason why the Fallon appointment could be troubling. As the Post report on Dec. 21 noted, top U.S. Army brass including Gen. Schoomaker are deeply troubled that the Army is already close to breaking point in Iraq with its combat forces over-deployed and stretched to the limit by their repeated tours of duty there. Bush is therefore risking eroding the morale of senior Army commanders and mid-level officers in Iraq by sending a top Navy aviator admiral to run CENTCOM with no first-hand experience of the strains that continuing combat operations have already inflicted upon U.S. forces in Iraq. This risks angering and alienating officers throughout the U.S. Army from their civilian overlords in a way that never remotely happened in either the Korean or Vietnam conflicts. Adm. Fallon may have to learn to listen exceptionally well to Gen. Petraeus to make their partnership work.