Denials notwithstanding, the bone of contention with the White House was President Bush's frequent reminder that the military option against Iran is still on the table. Gen. John Abizaid, Fallon's immediate predecessor, and retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni have spoken up in favor of diplomatic engagement with Iran at the highest religious level. Henry Kissinger's two secret trips to Beijing in July and October 1971, which paved the way for President Nixon's meeting with Mao Zedong in February 1972, are cited as the model; they changed the course of history.
Abizaid, an Arabic speaker, talking about the exercise of "smart" power diplomacy, argues the United States and the rest of the world may have to live with an Iranian "bomb," just as the U.S. learned to live with Soviet and Chinese nuclear weapons. But this would be the end result of a geopolitical bargain that would entail a resumption of diplomatic relations, an end to all economic sanctions and a non-aggression treaty, in return for what the United States wants -- an end to military support for Shia militia in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the last two on the U.S. and Israeli lists of terrorist organizations.
To deny Iran a nuclear deterrent is to deny geopolitical realities; five of the world's eight nuclear powers are in the region (Russia to the north, Israel to the West, Pakistan and India to the east, and the United States to the south with carrier-borne nukes) where Iran, known as Persia until 1935, is the proud descendant of the Persian civilization (dating back to 559 B.C.).
Zinni, Abizaid and now Fallon and other generals in and out of uniform are convinced any bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities would trigger bloody asymmetric retaliation against U.S. interests throughout the Middle East -- and beyond. Not to mention Russian and Chinese support for Iran. A Democrat in the White House in January 2009, whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, would take the military option off the table, even if not specifically stated. But a Republican presidency would put it back on; as John McCain has said more than once, there is only one thing worse than bombing Iran -- and that's an Iranian nuclear bomb.
The latest round of U.N. Security Council-approved sanctions is, at best, tepid. EU negotiating partners with Iran -- Britain, France and Germany -- tell the United States sanctions screws are being slowly tightened, though not to the point when Tehran will decide it can no longer pay outstanding trade debts to the Europeans applying the pressure.
McCain's close friend Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., invoking clandestine Iranian explosives smuggled into Iraq, has called for retaliatory military action against Tehran. He and many others warn that Israel faces an existential crisis. One Iranian nuclear-tipped missile on Jerusalem or Tel Aviv could destroy Israel, they argue. U.S. generals and admirals who speak out against the military option say the mullahs wouldn't be crazy enough to risk the vaporization of their entire country, which is what would happen if they fired a nuclear weapon against Israel.
The mullahocracy still thumbs its nose at the United States as it continues enriching uranium to the point when it will have enough to fuel its first nuclear weapon, a year or two from now. Fox Fallon was fully acquainted with contingency planning for action against Iran. With the army tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the brunt of an attack would fall on the U.S. Navy's battle carrier groups and its cruise missiles and Air Force B-2 bombers based in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. If orders to attack came from the commander in chief in the White House, the attack would be under Fallon's orders. So Fallon did what he felt senior military commanders opposed to the invasion of Iraq should have done in early-2003.
Fallon also knew Vice President Dick Cheney was off to the Middle East, ostensibly to nudge the peace process with Israel's Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leaders. But Cheney also had Saudi Arabia and Oman on his schedule, two key bystanders in any attack scenario against Iran. Fallon remembered Cheney made a similar, well-publicized trip to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries in March 2002. Diplomacy about Iraq, not war, was the agenda. War followed a year later.
U.S. warships, including an Aegis guided-missile destroyer (USS Ross), off the coast of Lebanon, teetering yet again on the edge of a resumption of its 15-year civil war (1975-90), were interpreted by some military analysts as insurance for Israel against Iranian missile reprisals.
Israeli President Shimon Peres' trip to Paris was, by his own admission, reassurance to President Nicolas Sarkozy that Israel will not act unilaterally to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. Sarkozy, in a major departure from his predecessors, pledged France would always be at Israel's side. Did Fallon interpret that to mean Bush has assured Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Israel will not have to act alone? (Peres, as a young French-speaking aide to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in the mid-1950s, negotiated with the French IVth Republic "the world's worst-kept secret" for "the-bomb-that-never-is," Israel's first installment in nuclear weapons know-how.)
Fallon evidently didn't want to be the top military commander in the Middle East in the event of hostilities with Iran. He knew what the Esquire article would say about his strategic reservations. In his ambiguous "farewell address" that ended a brilliant 43-year naval career, Fox said, "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 did not say he knows for a fact there were no differences about policy objectives in his area of responsibility, but "the simple perception that there is makes it difficult for me to serve America's interests there."