In sharp contrast to the lionization of Gen. David Petraeus by members of the US Congress during his testimony this week, Petraeus’ superior, Admiral William Fallon, chief of the Central Command (CENTCOM), derided Petraeus as a sycophant during their first meeting in Baghdad last March, according to Pentagon sources familiar with reports of the meeting.
Fallon told Petraeus that he considered him to be “an ass-kissing little chickens**t” and added, “I hate people like that,” the sources say. That remark reportedly came after Petraeus began the meeting by making remarks that Fallon interpreted as trying to ingratiate himself with a superior.
That extraordinarily contentious start of Fallon’s mission to Baghdad led to more meetings marked by acute tension between the two commanders. Fallon went on develop his own alternative to Petraeus’ recommendation for continued high levels of US troops in Iraq during the summer.
The enmity between the two commanders became public knowledge when the Washington Post reported Sep. 9 on intense conflict within the administration over Iraq. The story quoted a senior official as saying that referring to “bad relations” between them is “the understatement of the century.”
Fallon’s derision toward Petraeus reflected both the CENTCOM commander’s personal distaste for Petraeus’ style of operating and their fundamental policy differences over Iraq, according to the sources.
The policy context of Fallon’s extraordinarily abrasive treatment of his subordinate was Petraeus’ agreement in February to serve as front man for the George W. Bush administration’s effort to sell its policy of increasing US troop strength in Iraq to Congress.
In a highly unusual political role for an officer who had not yet taken command of a war, Petraeus was installed in the office of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, in early February just before the Senate debated Bush’s troop increase. According to a report in the Washington Post Feb. 7, senators were then approached on the floor and invited to go McConnell’s office to hear Petraeus make the case for the surge policy.
Fallon was strongly opposed to Petraeus’ role as pitch man for the surge policy in Iraq adopted by Bush in December as putting his own interests ahead of a sound military posture in the Middle East and Southwest Asia – the area for which Fallon’s CENTCOM is responsible.
The CENTCOM commander believed the United States should be withdrawing troops from Iraq urgently, largely because he saw greater dangers elsewhere in the region. “He is very focused on Pakistan,” said a source familiar with Fallon’s thinking, “and trying to maintain a difficult status quo with Iran.”
By the time Fallon took command of CENTCOM in March, Pakistan had become the main safe haven for Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda to plan and carry out its worldwide operations, as well as being an extremely unstable state with both nuclear weapons and the world’s largest population of Islamic extremists.
Plans for continued high troop levels in Iraq would leave no troops available for other contingencies in the region.
Fallon was reported by the New York Times to have been determined to achieve results “as soon as possible.” The notion of a long war, in contrast, seemed to connote an extended conflict in which Iraq was but a chapter.
Fallon also expressed great skepticism about the basic assumption underlying the surge strategy, which was that it could pave the way for political reconciliation in Iraq. In the lead story Sep. 9, the Washington Post quoted a “senior administration official” as saying that Fallon had been “saying from Day One, ‘This isn’t working.'”
One of Fallon’s first moves upon taking command of CENTCOM was to order his subordinates to avoid the term “long war” – a phrase Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates had used to describe the fight against terrorism.
Fallon was signaling his unhappiness with the policy of US occupation of Iraq for an indeterminate period. Military sources explained that Fallon was concerned that the concept of a long war would alienate Middle East publics by suggesting that US troops would remain in the region indefinitely.
During the summer, according to the Post Sep. 9 report, Fallon began to develop his own plans for redefine the US mission in Iraq, including a plan for withdrawal of three-quarters of the US troop strength by the end of 2009.
The conflict between Fallon and Petraeus over Iraq came to a head in early September. According to the Post story, Fallon expressed views on Iraq that were sharply at odds with those of Petraeus in a three-way conversation with Bush on Iraq the previous weekend. Petraeus argued for keeping as many troops in Iraq for as long as possible to cement any security progress, but Fallon argued that a strategic withdrawal from Iraq was necessary to have sufficient forces to deal with other potential threats in the region.
Fallon’s presentation to Bush of the case against Petraeus’ recommendation for keeping troop levels in Iraq at the highest possible level just before Petraeus was to go public with his recommendations was another sign that Petraeus’ role as chief spokesperson for the surge policy has created a deep rift between him and the nation’s highest military leaders. Bush presumably would not have chosen to invite an opponent of the surge policy to make such a presentation without lobbying by the top brass.
Fallon had a “visceral distaste” for what he regarded as Petraeus’ sycophantic behavior in general, which had deeper institutional roots, according to a military source familiar with his thinking.
Fallon is a veteran of 35 years in the Navy, operating in an institutional culture in which an officer is expected to make enemies in the process of advancement. “If you are Navy captain and don’t have two or three enemies, you’re not doing your job,” says the source.
Fallon acquired a reputation for a willingness to stand up to powerful figures during his tenure as commander in chief of the Pacific Command from February 2005 to March 2007. He pushed hard for a conciliatory line toward and China, which put him in conflict with senior military and civilian officials with a vested interest in pointing to China as a future rival and threat.
He demonstrated his independence from the White House when he refused in February to go along with a proposal to send a third naval carrier task force to the Persian Gulf, as reported by IPS in May. Fallon questioned the military necessity for the move, which would have signaled to Iran a readiness to go to war. Fallon also privately vowed that there would be no war against Iran on his watch, implying that he would quit rather than accept such a policy.
A crucial element of Petraeus’ path of advancement in the Army, on the other hand, was through serving as an aide to senior generals. He was assistant executive officer to the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Carl Vuono, and later executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Henry Shelton. His experience taught him that cultivating senior officers is the key to success.
The contrasting styles of the two men converged with their conflict over Iraq to produce one of the most intense clashes between US military leaders in recent history.