Washington The top U.S. commander in the Middle East, whose views on strategy in the region have put him at odds with the Bush administration, abruptly announced his resignation Tuesday, calling reports of such disagreements an untenable "distraction."
Adm. William "Fox" Fallon became head of U.S. Central Command last March, putting him ostensibly in charge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he clashed frequently with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, over strategy and troop levels, Pentagon officials said. Though technically Fallon's subordinate, Petraeus has more experience in Iraq and has forged a strong connection with President Bush.
Fallon had made several comments reflecting disagreement with the administration's stance on Iran, most recently in an Esquire magazine article last week that portrayed him as the only person who might stop Bush from going to war with the Islamic republic.
"Recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the president's policy objectives have become a distraction at a critical time," Fallon said in a statement. Though he denied that any discrepancies exist, he said "it would be best to step aside and allow" Defense Secretary Robert Gates "and our military leaders to move beyond this distraction."
Fallon is expected to step down at the end of the month, after barely a year in his position, and just eight days before Petraeus is scheduled to testify before Congress about conditions in Iraq. Military officers said it appeared that it was made clear to Fallon that nobody would object if he stepped down.
"Admiral Fallon reached this difficult decision entirely on his own," Gates said Tuesday in an unscheduled news conference. He added: "I believe it was the right thing to do, even though I do not believe there are, in fact, significant differences between his views and administration policy."
The defense secretary also praised Fallon's abilities as a strategist, even though it was the admiral's strategic views that seemed to trouble the administration. "He is enormously talented and very experienced, and he does have a strategic vision that is rare," Gates said.
The Esquire article, written by Thomas P.M. Barnett, asserted that if Fallon left his job anytime soon, it could signal that Bush intends to go to war with Iran. Asked about that Tuesday, Gates called it "just ridiculous."
Several Democrats were quick to accuse the administration of not tolerating dissent. "It's distressing that Admiral Fallon feels he had to step down," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "President Bush's oft-repeated claim that he follows the advice of his commanders on the ground rings hollow if our commanders don't feel free to disagree with the president." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked whether Fallon's resignation is a reflection that the administration is hostile to "the frank, open airing of experts' views."