HBO History Makers Series with Admiral William J. Fallon

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

CAROL GIACOMO: Good evening and welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations History Makers Series. On behalf of the Council, I would like to thank Richard Plepler and Home Box Office for their generous support of this series.

The History Makers Series focuses on the contributions made by a prominent individual at a critical juncture in U.S. foreign policy or international relations. I'd ask you to please turn off all your blackberries, your -- any devices at all so that it doesn't interfere with the sound system. I'll also remind you that this event is on the record. CFR members around the country and the world are participating in this meeting via a password-protected teleconference.

Our guest this evening as you all know is one of the most distinguished and colorful military leaders of his generation. Admiral William "Fox" Fallon retired last year after 41 years in the Navy. During that time, the New Jersey native was part of every major military operation and every major event with military equities, including Vietnam, Bosnia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the questions of how and whether to engage Iran and China. But he's also been accused of practicing diplomacy as well, and I hope we'll hear some of that tonight.

He's often described as a brilliant strategic thinker. And we hope that he will also share his insight on that level. You all have his bio so I'm not going to go into a lot of detail. Admiral Fallon headed the Pacific Command from 2005 to 2007. He then took control of Central Command from 2007 to 2008. He graduated from Villanova University, a fine Jesuit institution, the Naval War College, the National War College, and he has a Masters in international studies from Old Dominion University. Currently he's a fellow at MIT and writing a book.

So Admiral Fallon, why the Navy? Why an aviator?

ADMIRAL WILLIAM FALLON: Well it's an interesting story. I had no background, no family connections at all to the Navy, but I did find it fascinating to read about the Navy and I had a number of shall we say senior mentors growing up who told me about their Naval service during World War II and subsequent and kind of nudged me in what turned out to be the appropriate direction.

I had an opportunity to attend Villanova. I had a very substantial Navy scholarship to attend that institution. I did have some choices and I won't take the time here to go into the details, but at the 11th hour I think or probably about 12 hours left as the clock was winding down to decide which school I really wanted to attend I chose Villanova, and I think it's worked out very well for me. Delighted with it.

Naval aviation, I was a midshipman and I should -- maybe I ought to back up and tell you a little bit about my -- I didn't think I was going to get very far in the Navy. My introduction to the Navy was rather inauspicious. I was appraised of the fact that I had evidently done well enough in the scholarship competition to merit another look, and so I was invited to come for some interviews and some physical tests and so forth. And at the end of the day, we were directed to cue up and there's a long hallway and there were three doors at the end and I managed to get myself at the back of the line. And as the folks went down and went in and come out, some were pretty happy, some were not very pleased and we asked of course what the story was. And they said well there are three doors and there are three people, one behind each door, two young lieutenants they're terrific and there's this really old, crusty, mean son-of-a-gun Navy captain -- that meant he was probably about 43, 44 years old -- (laughter) -- but at any rate, he's pretty nasty and so you don't want to get him.

So, naturally, as my turn came, I was directed to go into this door and I presented myself and I didn't realize this at the time, but the captain was in fact the CO of the Navy ROTC unit at Villanova. He was also a submarine officer and a nuclear submarine officer who had been trained and punished by Admiral Rickover -- (laughter) -- if you know anything about Rickover, you'll understand this. And so he had adapted of course many of Rickover's methods. And so my introduction to him was to see this figure with his face buried in some paper on his desk. And I walked in, wasn't quite sure how to do this but figured I'd probably be pretty good if I just stood at attention, which I did for about a minute. He never moved. And after awhile I began to wonder if he even noticed that I came in so I made a slight tremoring movement whereupon he jumped up and said who told you to move and it went downhill from there. (Laughter.)

And -- at any rate, so we got into this conversation which was pretty much one way, why this, why this, why this. And he said well I've concluded that the only reason you're here is you're looking for a free ride to college, you don't care anything about the Navy, you don't know anything about the Navy, and you're wasting my time. And I said, but sir, I think I know something about the Navy. What? And so I said well the Navy's moving towards -- it's adapting nuclear power. And he said, oh, is that so? Name me five nuclear power ships. So I ticked off the names of five. And he registered a bit of surprise and -- what else do you know about the Navy? Well, I was on a roll now, and figured that -- (laughter) -- and I was pretty young and pretty stupid at the time.

So I said well I can tell you that the father of the Navy is buried right -- it was in Philadelphia by the way at the time -- and I said he's buried right down here in Old Saint Mary's Cemetery just yonder down the street there. And he said, oh, is that so, Mr. Fallon? He started to get very interested and he put his face a lot closer to mine and he said so tell me, who is the father of the Navy? And I said well sir, it's John Barry, whereupon he jumped out of the chair, bit my nose off, and said have you ever heard of John Paul Jones? And I got another harangue and I couldn't follow the rest of it. And I said that's right, yeah, I've heard of Jones, I know who he is but I said but I've seen the tombstone right down here in the cemetery on 2nd Street and it says John Barry, Father of the U.S. Navy. And there was always a wreath down and he's quite revered I know in Philadelphia. Whereupon I got my first real tail-chewing. And it went on forever. And I said yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full and decided to press on.

But the story for those who may not be intimately familiar with the Navy, is for as long as I can research the Navy has in fact kept two ships in commission, one named John Paul Jones, revered Father of the Navy, buried in a crypt down underneath the Academy Chapel; and John Barry of course who it turns out was the financial underpinning of the Navy and gets due recognition, particularly in Ireland.


So with that start, I thought -- when I went home, I said well I've just blown that one out of the water, so I'd better start looking for other employment.

GIACOMO: So you were right?

ADM. FALLON: I was right, but kind of sort of. At the end of the interview, he did introduce himself, said who he was, and said you know, you might survive at Villanova. Give it a try.

GIACOMO: And how --

ADM. FALLON: So aviation -- I loved airplanes. I went out on the Midshipmen Cruise, and I was introduced to a beautiful airplane, the A-5 Vigilante. As soon as I saw it I went, "Wow, they actually make things this pretty." And I'd already had a dose of rolling around on a cruiser in the North Atlantic during a big storm. My stomach didn't like that a whole lot. I spent a summer with the Marines and thought eating dirt was okay but there might be other -- other occupations that would be a little more fun. So it was kind of a no brainer when I got to aviation.

GIACOMO: And what was your most memorable mission as -- as an --

ADM. FALLON: Aviation?

GIACOMO: -- the Navy -- yeah.

ADM. FALLON: I probably can't talk about many of those because they were -- they were too much fun and probably get some people in trouble. (Laughter.) Some of the most memorable --

GIACOMO: You were the Tom Cruise of your generation?

ADM. FALLON: No. I was an attack guy. We actually did work. (Laughter.) You know, we used to -- we used to say that the -- you know, fighter guys made movies. The attack guys made history. There was a bumper -- is John Lehman (ph) here? John, you know this very well. At any rate, it was -- it was really an interesting career. Had a lot of -- a lot of time in a lot of places. I think that's probably the -- as I look back it seems like just a couple of months have passed since that time 40-some years ago -- fair amount of time in the cockpit and lots of things in many places of the world. And I'd say there are dozens of memories of those times.

Probably the most significant for me are those in which our people excelled. When I was a squadron commander I thought this was really the be-all and the end-all to actually have 300 people working for you with a dozen-and-a half airplanes and being able to -- to kind of work behind the scenes to get people stoked up to -- to really succeed in -- in challenging things. We -- it was during the middle of the Cold War in the early 80s and -- and we were constantly on alert, spinning up to go do something in the world.

It was a -- and it's really an interesting time that I'm trying to document here for posterity when I -- we have enough time to talk about it in detail. But there were challenges in the world, particularly in those days in the Middle East, in Lebanon and in Libya, in Syria and other places, and out of the public eye for sure but we were constantly being yo-yoed up and down, going on alert, being ready. In fact, my people in the squadron took one of my little sayings and put it in the -- into bronze but it could go on any time was the -- -- you know, these missions.

So watching people perform and watching them excel and -- and taking pride in their achievements and then as you -- as I got to other levels of command -- more people, more significant activities -- the same thing, and finally finishing up in CENTCOM with the magnificent performance of our -- our people in Iraq and -- and ongoing still in Afghanistan the most -- the most rewarding thing.

GIACOMO: For any of us who lived through Vietnam it was, you know, a similar (sic\means seminal) event, you know, for our generation. How did that conflict shape you?

ADM. FALLON: It was interesting. At the time, I was a junior officer, first rattle out of the box. I went to flight school and -- we were -- I knew we were headed to Vietnam; was there within two years I guess. And at the time I didn't know much and so didn't have too much to compare in terms of what I was experiencing and what might have been. And in hindsight, I learned a lot and I think a lot of those lessons -- my impressions from the time in Vietnam stayed with me.

For example, at the tactical level we did -- we worked really hard to be particularly professionally good at executing our missions. But as I look just beyond the tactical level it was an awful lot of effort for little return. We did things without a clear objective at the strategic level or operational level, to my way of thinking. We lost a lot of people. We constantly endangered people and we were getting direction from way beyond the line of sight. I don't -- I wondered even in those days how people in Washington could begin to imagine what things were really like over North Vietnam, for example, to send mission tasking to do certain things that far removed from the battlefield.

It was very frustrating to just go out and watch the effort day after day and not see much in the way of results. And so as we moved on in history and I look back on that, a couple things strike me as really important. If you're going to get involved in major military activity you better have a pretty good idea of what you need, what you want for an end state, and how you're going to get there. And having -- taking the time to think through these things before you get too deeply into them I think is really critical. The other just fact of life there's nothing new here -- it's been documented all through history -- that once the shooting starts you're never quite sure how this is going to end up.

There's so many things, so many factors, and every time that -- for example, on our side we would make a move or play a card, of course, the other side has an opportunity to play another card back. And trying to predict what those moves are going to be in reaction to things you do and vice versa -- you know, very challenging. Also, it was extremely frustrating to be out there and to realize that a huge percentage of the population of our country didn't have the foggiest idea what was really going on out there in Southeast Asia. And probably the ultimate example of that was in Christmas of 1969. Bob Hope came out at the last minute -- it was announced he was going to come and visit my aircraft carrier and entertain our sailors and Marines for Christmas.

It was a terrific morale booster. We'd been out for several months now and so this flurry of activity and the whole troop came aboard and it was just a great -- great success. And we were -- we were flying even -- Christmas Eve, raced back down that evening to get -- get them aboard, get set up, and we were going to go right back on the line as soon as they got off the next day. In fact, I remember flying twice on Christmas after they left. But the point was that I was tagged to be an escort for one of the Hollywood types that was with -- with Bob; I think one of the producers of the show. And the show was just great and we all loved it and had a ball and I could tell you lots of stories about that -- fun things.

But the next morning I was escorting my guest to breakfast and we actually walked through the hangar deck which was now being -- the show had been broken down and they were preparing for the missions and so the place was covered with bombs and rockets and -- and sailors busily getting the airplanes armed and trying to get them ready to go. So we had to walk through all these things and this gentleman came with me and, you know, he seemed to notice and then we went down below and he said, "So what do you guys really do out here?" (Laughter.) He said, "Do you just fly around and kind of show the flag?"

I didn't know how to answer him at the time. I just -- I was just incredulous, and this is -- this kind of the way it was. So that really bugged me. And then to come back home after that after a year and to find this, you know, just constant -- the fighting and people hollering. And then move the clock forward several decades and to find similar activities in the past couple of years here, there's some lessons there and one of the lessons is as I look at events that have played out over -- over my time in service, there are times when we seem to pay attention and get most of the things right to the best of our ability and we're all human so we're -- we're going to always have -- have -- make mistakes and do things that aren't quite as we'd like to have them.

But I think it's important to have the capability -- ensure we have the capability to do the things that we undertake. And as I look back on it I don't know how we were in the early 60s -- I was too young and out of the business to understand that. I knew that in the 70s we had managed to get ourselves in a real pickle and from my professional view of inside the Navy didn't like what I saw and didn't like our materiel condition, didn't like our leadership, didn't like a lot of things. It was just really a tough time to be -- to be in service. And then we got well in the 80s. We fixed a lot of things that were -- that were not right.

And it wasn't just an infusion of money; that certainly helped a lot of material things. But there was a recognition by leadership that a lot of things had not been done very well, and people took a very active role in straightening up, cleaning up the mess, and -- and looking to the future. And I think that paid off. So by the end of the 80s we -- we were in much better condition to go about doing anything that would happen to pop up. And I think the best demonstration of that was in '91 in the Gulf War. You know, we really had -- had our capabilities in hand, well trained, ready to go to do whatever needed to be done and it went off pretty well.

But the second piece of this is getting people to understand what it is we're trying to undertake and to get support. You're never going to get everybody to agree -- that's -- that's just a dream. But to get the majority of people behind you and to have very clear objectives. So I tried to explain this to my young aviators as I -- as we prepared the night before we began flying missions over Iraq in '91. I looked around and realized that there was only one other aviator in the entire air wing that had any combat experience. It was one of my commanding officers and he had spent about 30 seconds over Benghazi in 1986 on the raid into Libya.

But everybody else was all new. And you could see -- I thought back to my own early days in the -- in the 60s in Vietnam and said I kind of know what's going through their minds now. I mean, you could -- you could see. I understood very well -- and very nervous, very -- very uptight. It's okay, we're going to get through this. And I'll tell you what's different; I know it already. In the 60s in Vietnam we were putting in time. At the end of our time if we were still in one piece we'd be happy campers and we'd get to go home for six months and come right back and maybe do it again.

But we're going to push this one and we're not going to leave here until it's done and I have a feeling that we're going to be pretty happy with the outcome because there's a very clear direction. We had meetings before hostilities even began that -- that laid out what we were going to -- what we wanted to -- what people wanted to achieve, what the leadership wanted, and how we were going to do it and the tools were readily available. So I don't think we got that very correct in this decade as we got into other activities.

GIACOMO: Let's -- let's talk a little bit about Iraq now and let's start when you first realized that this country was going to go to war against Saddam Hussein and what were the discussions like. You know, there's -- much has been made of your position on the -- on the surge, which gets a little bit farther down the road. But -- but talk about how -- how that all began for you and whether you thought we went to war with -- with the right materiel, with the right strategy, which you found so important in earlier conflict.

ADM. FALLON: I was the vice chief of the Navy in that period, 2000 to 2003, and we had -- had a lot of things going on and much change. The attacks on 9/11 -- I was in the Pentagon with the Navy staff that day -- really hit home for many people, including some very senior people. That was their first exposure to the kind of realities of warfare, dead and dying people in their midst, and many of our people had no sense of that. They had no experience.

I felt that I had a bit of an advantage immediately. And so we reorganized and we got going and we got ourselves squared away and immediately started looking ahead and saying I'm not sure where this is going to end up but I know we're going to really have to have our ducks in a row. And so I went back and looked at our people side. We were really in, I thought, terrific shape people wise. I felt we were in very good shape materiel wise. We looked at some details of certain kinds of weapons and other capabilities that we might need and made some immediate decisions to get going to -- just anticipating we'd probably be needing some of the stuff. And then we went into Afghanistan and -- and cleaned the place out at least temporarily, and I think that that was -- you could debate in hindsight the timing of that and exactly what we did and how we did it.

GIACOMO: The timing of Afghanistan or Iraq?

ADM. FALLON: Yeah. Afghanistan first because it had a -- had a lot to do with this. And we had some assets available. There was a real desire to go back and try to get the people that were -- the perpetrators of 9/11. I think there was a strong momentum to do that. So you make decisions. And I think one of the things that often -- the media, maybe in an effort to help or try to make things clear, looks for simple solutions -- looks for sound bites and things that'll just explain well, this and this so therefore it's this.

In every one of these endeavors things are always much more complex than they appear. But at any rate, decision was made to go -- go in and go after the Taliban and particularly to try to get al Qaeda. At the end of the day, we didn't -- didn't clean out al Qaeda. We forced them out of Afghanistan, got rid of the Taliban, and gave that country a running start on -- on things. But then having this -- the problem of the perpetrators of 9/11 still at large, still being pretty defiant and issuing all kinds of things -- a clear aggravation, and that sense of needing to finish this, to get these guys, to try to get rid of this problem and to make amends for what happened because the thought was as this thing spreads and then as other bombings occurred around the world it was clear that this was not going to be something that was just easy to -- easy to fix and -- and we're going to have to.

So Iraq -- Saddam had been a thorn in -- in our side for a long time. After the -- at the end of the Gulf War my sense was I thought we were in better shape operationally than it turns out we were. I thought that we had pretty much taken care of his army in the south and it turned out to be not true -- that enough of them escaped that he -- he kept enough power -- a power base in the country and then he perpetrated more -- more bad things on the people. So that was just a continuing aggravation. We had spent a decade of -- a tremendous amount of effort, countless billions of dollars in these Northern Watch, Southern Watch operations trying to confine him to -- and the various sanctions and other things.

None of this appeared to be working very well. And then to have intelligence bits come in and indicate that Saddam was aligning with al Qaeda or facilitating them or whatever. This was stuff that was pretty disconcerting, and I'll tell you from my viewpoint I heard -- saw these reports and we asked a lot of questions. You know, is this -- what do we know? What do we think? And we -- we got an awful lot of feedback from the intelligence community that, you know, these things are adding up and in fact there's a nexus here of these characters in Iraq and -- and oh, by the way, with all the pushback on the U.N. sanctions -- not the sanctions but the inspections and -- and the obvious lying and deceit that was going on there was a sense that there's probably more going on here than -- than we can see and just this kind of churn that -- more and more building up.

I looked at the evidence that was in front of me and I said, you know, I mean, it's -- it's not just clearly one way but it sure looked like enough to -- to -- that we probably ought to go do something about it. You can debate doing it this way, that way, other ways. But I think that I'll just speak for myself. As I looked at the documentation that I was presented it seemed to me that there was probably enough evidence there that indicated that Saddam was a part of this -- that he was in cahoots with -- with al Qaeda at the time and that they were trying to do something with -- with either nuclear or biological weapons, certainly.

GIACOMO: What -- what would you do differently now in the hindsight?

ADM. FALLON: You can second guess this thing all day long. You could -- maybe an event some months before where it looked like there was evidence of a particular set of activity, and I don't want to get into all the details of it because of the sources. But it seemed to me that okay, this is the best evidence I've seen -- why don't we go try this one right now -- let's go -- let's go find out one way or the other. And, you know, you could strike this particular activity. You could send people in there.

It was riskier in every one of these. There was not a -- not a great desire to put people at risk at that time and so we didn't do it and -- but later on we put a lot more people into the country. So as the -- as the decision or as people prepared for this decision it seemed to me that we could do the -- the military business of getting rid of Saddam relatively easily and that was borne out, although a little more difficult than some people -- people thought. The big question was going to be then what -- you know, what's going to happen and -- and how do we deal with this. And that was -- that was -- in hindsight clearly the biggest error was not accounting for that. And there were some people that said, you know, if you do this the traditional way it requires a lot of -- lot of manpower. And -- but to put -- to give a fair airing to all the things that were going on there were other factors that were in play here.

You know, one was a strong push to try to transform, which was the -- the famous word at the time, to transform the military to be more adept and more agile and more ability to -- have an ability to respond more quickly to the kinds of things that we were beginning to face in the -- in the first decade of this century. And this was not a small task because the services were still pretty much organized the way they had been since the end of World War II and that was to fight major wars and the -- the units, the equipment, and so forth still pretty heavy, pretty ponderous.

And so Secretary Rumsfeld at the time was keenly into this and was pushing very hard to get them to change, the Army in particular. And it was very clear to me that change was needed and we needed change in our Navy and we worked on that pretty hard. We certainly reduced manpower, but the signal event for that I recall was as the planning got underway in 2000 to 2003, there was an entire Army Division, the 4th Infantry Division, that was supposed to, in the plan, land troops in Turkey and come through the north and be an anvil, if you would, to push up from the south, and we couldn't get it done in the political realm.

But the sticking point for me was we had 42 ships at sea carrying the equipment for this one division -- 42 full shiploads -- and that didn't count the people that were going to come by air. And I thought to myself, okay, I get it now; this is just -- this isn't really appropriate to the kinds of tasks that we are likely to face, and so the Army was slow to pick this up. They have now made a lot of changes, but this pressure to change, change, change and then have the plan that was submitted were pretty much in the old style I think were one of the reasons why the secretary was not very keen on this and did a lot of pushback about numbers and decided that he was going to be the fellow that authorized each individual deployment -- which, if I'll fast-forward to when I finally go to CENTCOM in 2007, this process where every single person that went to Iraq had to be personally approved by the secretary, and whether the increment was a couple of people or a whole division or by those -- of a brigade of about 4,000 -- 3,500, 4,000 people, each one of these deployments had to go through a process to get dropped up through the chain of command -- incredible amount of time, effort.

And I find by that time, by 2007, most of the bureaucracy was consumed with this process of getting all these approvals. Wait a minute, we have a war going on; we focus on the operational side of this, I asked. And a lot of people said they were, but as I looked at what was going on on my own new staff at CENTCOM and other places, in fact most of the work that I saw was process work and we had really kind of gotten off the path there. So that's too much detail.

GIACOMO: Wow, you're very fast-moving, and there are lots of different questions we can ask about Iraq. I'm going to ask you about Iran and then I'll turn to the audience.

When you resigned, your resignation came after a very controversial article in Esquire, and, you know, there was talk that you had been forced out, that you were seen as being in conflict with the president. Would you talk a little bit about that, and were perceptions perhaps exaggerated?

ADM. FALLON: Sure, there's always a fair amount of that, and with most stories there's some fact and some fiction, and --

GIACOMO: And also talk about what your concerns are with Iran and the way --


GIACOMO: -- it was being approached.

ADM. FALLON: Iran is a challenge. It was certainly when I got to CENTCOM and as I looked at the table with Iraq on fire, and there was no doubt in my mind this was the first thing we really had to get moving quickly because I thought the clock was running out here in the amount of time and the flexibility we had. And then Afghanistan right next door, which had begun to -- I thought we were down to low embers and that was starting to blow back up again, and so we had to deal with these things.

As the regional commander I looked at my tour as dealing with these two problems, but I had commanders that were assigned -- Dave Petraeus now going into Iraq to deal with Iraq inside, Dan McNeil in Afghanistan was a NATO commander and he was in charge of ops there. But I saw myself in the position of trying to orchestrate the rest of the neighborhood, and it seemed to me that getting a solution in either one of these places without paying attention to the neighborhood was folly. It was just not likely to happen, not likely to be successful, and I saw a lot of problems around the vicinity.

For example, in Iraq you had two states, Syria and Iran, that were both aiding and abetting the trouble. They were throwing gasoline on the fire, doing everything, particularly in the case of Iran, to instigate trouble and to really make our lives very, very difficult, literally, in the country. And then we had the rest of the Middle East, which had decided it didn't like at all the way Iraq had gone. Each of the leaders, as I went around on my first visit to them, issued a lecture to me and told me how screwed up we were and all these mistakes we made, and yes, sir, yes, sir, I got it but we're here and now we need to get out of this hole and we need your help, and we can't do it alone; we've got a lot to ask you for. And I told -- got it. But the issue was that all the Sunni countries in the Gulf just about, without exception, had fears, anxieties and bad things to say about the issues. They were fearful of Iran, wanted something done about it, but as soon as I said, well, what do you recommend, it was, we don't know but don't attack them. That's very interesting; what do you have in mind? Don't really have any answers but that's what you're here for Fallon; you figure this out. (Laughter.)


Back to Iraq. We don't like Maliki, we don't like this idea of the Shi'a taking over the place, and so this is really bad and just, you know, we're not going to help. Well, if you don't help, this place will get even worse than it is and we need you to support them. So it took me a while to work with these countries to try to come along, but to just ignore Syria and Iran seem to me to be just not the smartest thing to do. So I was not shy about offering opinions. And the way this thing works, you know, again the media will portray this thing as to fight -- it's black or white, it's fight, throw flowers and go to war, go peace. That's not the way things really are. There are constant discussions. There are all kinds of nuances. There are issues, there are people that are working agendas here, there and everywhere. So these discussions are ongoing.

I said some things that I thought made it very clear that my position was we need to -- we don't need another -- a war. We have two ongoing. And what I meant by that was there was an awful lot of media hype, if you look back in 2007, about another war in Iran, and everything that happened it was, okay, well, this is -- they're setting the table. First of all, when I was announced to be the CENTCOM commander, Fallon, what are they ever -- what are they doing? What are they thinking about sending him out there? What does he know about this stuff? He's a sailor, first of all. And then somebody said, aha, I've got him. I looked at his background. This guy is an attack guy. He loves to blow stuff up. He's got experience. That's what they got him for. So then it was this -- you know, the story went around, the only reason that he's out there is because he's going to, you know, be the next instigator, so what are you thinking about?

But, anyway, it was a good story. You know, some people laughed it up.

GIACOMO: Do you think it was just the media that was building this up?

ADM. FALLON: No, no, there were other people. The reality of life is everybody has an opinion. We used to have a little joke in our family that my mother-in-law, who is not shy at all, from New York -- (laughter) -- she had a lot of opinions and she used to -- when we'd kind of look sometimes she'd say, I'm entitled to my opinion. Yes, Mom, you are, but we're not sure who wants to hear about it. (Laughter.) But anyway, she's a dear, dear lady that's passed on now, but very strong-willed. But people have opinions and there are people who feel very strongly that some people felt we shouldn't even go near Iran, that we ought to just continue this isolation and the best thing is just to ignore them and either they'll go away or they'll implode or something, and other people said, no, you ought to embrace them, forget all that and, you know -- and in between you have these other courses of action.

So there are people who are advocating positions and there are people who talk constantly in Washington. You know, they'll drip a little bit of information out and somebody will take note of it. There are people who are in policy positions, people who are out of policy positions but anxious to write and talk about their particular things, and these things were constantly being put out. So I could go back and look at 25 or 30 things that were written or said that advocated do this, don't do that; go do that, don't do this, and my sense was the majority of these things were moving towards we ought to have some -- or there's a fear that there's going to be another shoot 'em up here. It didn't seem to me to be the appropriate course of action, so tamp it down, stop talking about that. Let's talk about focusing on getting these two problems solved, and then in the long term we're going to have to deal with Iran after three decades.

GIACOMO: While you were a CENTCOM commander, did you ever -- how close do you think Israel came to taking its own action against Iran?

ADM. FALLON: I have no idea, but a lot of this also is very simplistic and off the mark in this discussion, as if you're going to do, okay, well, let's take military action. Very interesting. I think I know a little bit about this. What do you propose? Well, we'll just have a strike and blow it all up. That's very interesting. And just how do you propose to do this? And so you have any idea what it might take? Do you have any idea what -- well, of course, we have all this intelligence and we'll figure this out. We had a lot of intelligence about Iraq, too, which I'd like to go walk that dog back. And so very sweeping, simplistic proposals: Just take care of this problem.

Back in the '80s -- I think it was'81 -- Israel did a strike, a single strike against a single reactor in Iraq. That is not the situation in Iran. It certainly wasn't back in 2006, 2007. And all of this talk, I thought, was, again, just really distracting people from the business at hand. We had to fix Iraq, get it done. We had to fix Afghanistan. And in the meanwhile we had to figure out how we were going to approach the problem in Iran. It's a big country. There's influence. There are lots of ramifications. And so we need to take a measured approach at this rather than just talk about having another war.

GIACOMO: I invite you all. Sir?

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Alan Heimert (sp) from Columbia Presbyterian. Congratulations to your naval colleagues for their amazing achievement of the last few days in the Indian Ocean. I think it's the first time since 1804 that naval ships have been engaged with pirates. Is this a little footnote or do you think this is the beginning of a major new problem for our country?

GIACOMO: I erred in my moderator's duties in not asking you to try to focus your question on his, you know, past events.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

GIACOMO: Well -- (laughter.)

ADM. FALLON: History. All right, I'll tell you what. Let answer that one and then we'll try to abide by the rules. There's nothing new here and it's not the start of any huge new thing. We've had pirate problems all through recorded history. We've had to deal with them since the earliest days of our country. At the end of the day you've got to deal with them in a certain, I think, very aggressive manner. And it doesn't mean you start another war because these pirates are not a nation state of any kind. These are thugs and criminals that are able to go about their business because they happen to be occupying a place that has no government that functions, and in these kinds of environments lawlessness occurs.

So you can wish it to go away, you can play with it, you can try to deal with it, and you can have all kinds of things that are not likely to be effective, but sooner or later you're going to have to go to the heart of the problem and get rid of the pirates, and sooner or later I suspect we'll probably end up doing that, because this event will, you know, solve the immediate challenge but didn't fix the problem.

GIACOMO: Somebody else? Yes?

QUESTIONER: I think this is a historical question. My name is Roland Paul. I'm a lawyer, Admiral. I think it was under your watch that we came to the conclusion that President Musharraf had to go. And I had the assumption from the public media he was our fellow, our ally but he just couldn't quite hack it, but subsequent to that I came to -- I think I heard that he really was playing two sides against the middle, or something, but maybe you can enlighten us as to -- I mean, I assume it wasn't just because we love democracy for Pakistan. I don't know.

ADM. FALLON: Yeah, I'll make a -- there's another assumption that seems to come in and out of vogue, and that is that we decide we don't like somebody so we're going to get rid of them, and so Musharraf is a problem; let's get rid of him. Maliki was becoming a problem; let's get somebody new in Iraq. You know, we don't like this guy in Iran; we'll just -- I mean, if you think about this a little bit and say, okay, we didn't like Saddam so the decision was made to get rid of Saddam. So that was in what year? We're eight years into this now and we're still trying to figure out how to clean up the broken china here. So these kinds of statements, we're going to get rid of leaders, I think are really just not even remotely in the realm of clear thinking, but back to Musharraf specifically.

If you go back and look at a little bit of history, when he took over the country, leadership of the country, they were throwing flowers at him in the streets, and hosannas to the highest; finally we got somebody that's going to square this place away and get rid of a corrupt government, and, boy, it sure looked like there were a lot of Pakistanis that were very, very happy about that. Things happened. It's a very difficult country. They've got a lot of problems. My dealings with President Musharraf, I found him to be very straightforward. Every single thing he told me he was going to do, he did. And when I deal with people, results count, and when you tell me you're going to do something and you do it, I feel a lot better. When you tell me you're going to do something and you don't do it or you do something different, then I start to get concerned.

But he had a host of problems. I'm not going to attempt to go back and justify all the things he's done or didn't do, but it's a complex country and to have an appreciation for it I think it's worthwhile to understand a little bit of history, as with most of these places, that the country inherited a lot of problems from its past.

The Brits left in place a number of things that, when they left at the end of the colonial era, that have never been cleaned up. It's a religious divide that occurred. You had the war -- numerous wars with India. The focus within the military and security establishment in Pakistan, from my perception, was India's the real problem and therefore all of our focus is on India and therefore all of our strategic decisions are based on the potential for another conflict with India, which then leads into some interesting things like, so, how do we protect our rear since we have this marginally functional state called Afghanistan, and the Indians, by the way, seem to be dabbling out there, and so I suspect this was the motivation behind whatever alliances were made with the Taliban.

There is also -- there are a lot of people in the ISI, the intelligence agency, that were particularly helpful to us, if that's the right word, back in the '80s when we were aiding and abetting the insurgents, the mujaheddin, against the Soviets because it was certainly the height of the Cold War, and so we were all too pleased in most cases to have the assistance of the ISI working with these people in Afghanistan. Okay, so times change. The Soviets decide they've had enough. They leave and we move on, but all these connections are still made, and in the eyes of the Paks, I think, they still have the India problem and so how do we buy some insurance against India? Well, we'll cut some deals with the boys here. And, by the way, the so-called ungoverned areas, the FATA, the western provinces out there, historically, for hundreds of years, have been autonomous with little to no rule, like none, from the central government in Islamabad, and things were okay. And it was kind of like -- there was no real wall there; you could come and go, but people didn't. They stayed out, and the trouble stayed out there, whatever there was, and things were fine in the settled areas of Pakistan.

Well, things changed, and there are a couple of things that are worthwhile. When I was in the Pacific I was on the other side of the fence working with the Indians because that was part of my domain responsibility, which Pakistan was not. So our relationship with India has been improving, and that's really to the good. We won't dwell on that one.

When I got announced to go to CENTCOM, it was very interesting. One of my staff guys said, hey, boss, there's an interesting article you ought to read that just showed up in a Pak newspaper. And I said, okay, let me read it. So I read the thing. It was written in English and it was from Islamabad and it said, this is really important for all the Pakistani people to take note of this. Recently Admiral Fallon, who was the Pacific commander, was invited by the Indians to go to Indian-occupied Kashmir for a very interesting visit.

Nobody had ever done this before, but Fallon is the first guy, and the Indians took him up and showed him whatever they showed him up here along the border. And this guy said, I don't know exactly what went on, but what we think went on was Fallon was out there to advise the Indians on how they might, in the wake of reduced violence in Kashmir, reduce their troop structure, which is about a million men, and thereby facilitate some further actions. Now he's coming to CENTCOM and speculation is he's now going to go advise the Pak army on how they can reduce tension -- very, very interesting. I said, hey, if this comes true I'll be a happy camper. (Laughter.)

But back to Pakistan. The focus for the Pak military is on the potential for a war with India, and it's a single-minded focus, so their entire army is geared to the east. And you can look at every -- every measure indicates that. So now things change in 2006, 2007, and this so-called insurgency, or whatever, flows into the so-called populated areas or the settled areas, and now Musharraf's got a full-scale insurgency on his hands. I think the Red Mosque thing, in hindsight, he didn't do too well on that one. That thing just festered for months and months and months and people got agitated. Then these other political domestic things -- his deal with the Chief Justice Chaudhry went on and on. And without giving away confidences, we talked about that specific issue one on one a couple of times and he was really -- Musharraf was very uptight about this issue. He didn't like what the chief justice was doing. He thought it was really unhelpful to the country.

But in the big picture, I felt some things that gave me some confidence. One, Musharraf, in my opinion, got the picture on India. He didn't, I think, see this as a threat. He didn't really think there was going to be a war. And he knew that he needed to change the focus of the country to get away from the conflict with India and focus on some of its internal problems. He recognized they had all kinds of issues -- economic issues. He was very proud of the fact that during his term, significant progress had been made on the economic side and the people had more confidence in the economy, and he thought that if had enough time he could build this economic activity into something that would be better for people. It didn't work out that way -- too many political problems. But he recognized that things they had done in the FATA were not helpful. The deal that they cut back in 2005 -- I think, late 2005 with some of the insurgents, that was a failure. And he said -- he admitted defeat. He said, 'we got fished.' Didn't work. We got to do something different.

So, he had in mind a plan to do this, but then events spiraled out of control when Benazir Bhutto went back, and that assassination. Again, that was perpetrated -- it looks, by all the evidence, by the same characters that were, that are leading the charge against us in Afghanistan.

And so this is -- this Af-Pak issue, as it's now called conveniently, is exactly the right way to look at this. This isn't two countries; this is one problem that straddles the borders. There are tendrils that go into both places. And we're going to have to take it -- if we think we can help solve thing, which we're not going to be able to do on our own, but we're going to have to have some help -- we'll have to look at both sides of the border and work very closely with the people (pretty much ?).

GIACOMO: We're going to take a question now from one of our national members, Charles Cogan, at the Kennedy School of Government.

Can you discuss your relationship with General Petraeus, which is laid out by Tom Ricks in his book on the surge in Iraq entitled, "The Gamble?"

ADM. FALLON: Well, I wouldn't -- wouldn't put too much stock in that particular book -- (laughter) -- without being snooty or snotty. If you read the book, or if somebody's read it, you'll see that even Ricks admits that I wouldn't talk to him about it, with the reasons that I feel very strongly about. So, you can take it for what it's worth.

And some of what he has in there, I believe, is accurate. A lot of it's not. And it's second-hand; it's hearsay; it's from other people telling him something; and his own conjecture, and some of it is right, and some of it is wrong.

My relationship with Dave Petraeus?


ADM. FALLON: Dave was my subordinate commander. He was in charge of operations in Iraq -- very competent, very professional. He had a very difficult tour and he had to figure out what to do with these surge resources that were made available. And he and his team came up with a very good operational plan, which I supported, and they went about doing that.

My job was different than Dave Petraeus.' I had to consider what he was doing; I had to consider what was going on in Afghanistan; what we might have to do in other areas; all these other minor issues, like pirates, and the problems in Sudan, and in Somalia, and in Ethiopia, and every other of the 29 countries of Central Asia.

And so, having the resources and focus to do all these things was my job and not his. He would -- as I would have expected if I were in that position, wanted to have every possible resource devoted to his task at hand. I'd have probably done the same thing. I was not in a position to give him everything that he wanted to have, and that probably didn't -- was some irritant, I suspect, of particularly some of his staff guys, maybe to Dave too.

But we, in fact, talked constantly -- literally every day; sometimes several times a day. Dave proposed some plans, as the commander with responsibilities for this region. My responsibility was not to just say, "good to go," but to look at it, to examine it, to put my two cents in it, which I did, and continued to do the entire time. And that's the way the system is supposed to work.

And so that's how it did work. Did we agree on every issue? I doubt it. Of course not. But, did we agree on the big things? Did we come to the conclusion about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it? Yes. At the end of the day we put forth a plan that we were both happy with. And this plan had to be updated, of course, every several months, as we moved through, and we were moving toward it, and they've done a terrific job.

So, Ricks, again, would -- among others, would like to sell books, I suspect, and to paint a picture of divisiveness, or anything to titillate. And it's not the accurate picture.

GIACOMO: Michael?

QUESTIONER: Michael Hirsch, with Newsweek.

Admiral, in the interest of continuing to correct the record -- back on Iran, there remains the perception that Secretary Gates and you had to quite actively talk down the Israelis from taking military action of some kind against Iran, to the point of denying overflight rights or IFF, Identify (sic) Friend or Foe codes, things like that. Can you address that?

ADM. FALLON: Yeah. I can tell you, categorically, that no one ever came to me and asked me for any of these permissions, or even raised the issue. And so this is all more of the speculation that goes on continuously.

As part of the national decisionmaking, the senior leadership will ask -- I would hope they will, and they did certainly when I was there, and the president would ask, and the Secretary, for opinions of issues, large and small, and we gave those continuously. I think that, again, this is a little bit of fiction that was orchestrated for entertainment value. If nothing, that's too snotty, but -- (laughter).

You know, people -- again, to try to make a distinction, or put a line where things aren't exactly black and white, all of these businesses is very complex and very fuzzy. So, I don't think that that's an accurate picture at all.

You constantly plan if you're a military person with responsibility for a large part of the world. We have many plans. It's prudent to plan. It's really useful to put the staffs through the process of thinking through potential occurrences. And to not do that would be pretty short-sighted and not what we ought to be being paid to do.

So, you try to push people to think about different scenarios. And, of course, some of these get very interesting. And occasionally people talk -- particularly, close to the beltway in Washington, and so they'll drop a little tidbit out there and immediately there's a feeding frenzy to try and embellish this thing and get out on it. Most of these things are best left outside the -- in the rooms where they take place.

The purposes of these drills is to get people to think about potential options and to think about potential occurrences. Every plan I've been a party to has been changed or altered many times. But, you have to have a starting point, and we would be remiss, to say the least, if we didn't think through a number of scenarios.

And you certainly look at the worst case. Does that mean you expect to have the worst case occur? Of course not. But, these things can take on a life if their own, because tidbits will come out -- and, again, people have positions, and the most extreme positions are the ones that are least useful. Because when people take these things -- and they're looking for particular sound bites, or events, or things to buttress their arguments, they try to push the pendulum way out there. So, they'll seize upon this -- they'll hear about it and they'll, you know, titillate this, and go back, and it just goes on and on.

But, I think it's appropriate to do planning for a full range of scenarios. You don't mean to scare people. You don't want to get people excited. But, I think you'd be very pleased to have our professional people -- in the military, in the intelligence agencies collaborating together to look and try and work through scenarios.

And there have been some examples, while I was the CENTCOM commander, some in Iraq, some in Afghanistan, some in countries that are outside of that, where we had some very, very good work that was done. And people thought through things, and they were able to give myself, give the secretary, give the president some really good ideas about what might have to be done in certain scenarios. But, the idea that we were giving thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Israeli plans is nonsense.

GIACOMO: Let's take one more question.


QUESTIONER: Jan Berris, with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

I was going to ask you about the recent dust-up in the South China Sea between the American Naval ships, but Carol might say that's not (laughs) historical enough. So instead, I'd be interested to hear you compare and contrast your Central Command post and your Pacific Command, in terms of dealing with the countries involved in the region.

You mentioned a little bit before about --


QUESTIONER: -- different -- (inaudible) -- countries, but you had a lot of different personalities and countries to deal with in both areas. What were the challenges, and which was most interesting?

ADM. FALLON: That's just a really good question. I probably could do a whole lecture, in my academic realm up at MIT, to talk about it.

But, probably the most significant factors that come to mind immediately are: The situation in the Middle East and Iraq in 2007 was so politicized, and so hot, and so fraught with danger -- from the standpoint of policy failure, of physical loss of life, which was on-going, of the potential to make more wrong decisions. And, basically, every time you even moved a finger there were dozens of people second-guessing and looking over your shoulder to push some way or the other.

The Pacific, we had time to think. Because of all the attention on Iraq and the Middle East, not as many folks second-guessing every step. There were certainly those who had different opinions and wanted to do -- and push agendas, but there was actually time to think about things and to plan.

And so, China -- which I know Jan has some interest in, when I got to thinking about China it was pretty clear that this is a big issue. In fact, it's one of the major issues that we, as a nation, need to be cognizant of and to be thinking about constantly. So, how to deal with China? And I sampled the spectrum and got everything from far right to far left.

Okay, what's the prudent course of action? I'm not quite sure. I've got some of my own ideas, but actually had the time to pull together a group. And there's certain advantages to being stationed in Hawaii, not the least of which is -- (laughter) -- the climate. But, it said, you know, why don't we see if we can get the best minds in the world to come out here and help noodle this thing? And so it was not very difficult to entice people to come to Hawaii.

So we set up a conference, in the early days, to invite particularly the intelligence community, which had huge impact -- particularly in Washington, because of all the things that have been said and done over the years. So, we invited folks out, and basically locked them up for a couple of days -- I didn't tell them that at all.

But, they were very kind, and we spent two days just thinking and talking about everybody's ideas, and then trying to shape this thing to come up with the "big picture" set of assumptions: What did we really think about our relationship? Where are we in the world? What are we -- they likely to do, and why? And if we're wrong, what happens?

You know, you make assumptions. You're right or you're wrong. There's a lot of wishy-washy stuff in assumptions these days, but you need to be right or wrong. And if you're wrong, fine. Okay, let's have another course of action. But, we were able to take the time to think through this and to formulate an approach to dealing with China, for example, as well as other issues in Asia.

And I felt that we had time. We had the attention of people who were very thoughtful -- Jan being one of them, who knows an awful lot about this, has a lot of history; many people in the world who were very, very eager to share what they knew and learned. And we were able to, I think, come up with a pretty good baseline plan to go back.

And Secretary Rumsfeld, my boss at the time, I spent a fair amount of time working through this with him. Very demanding. He asked a lot of questions. Challenged me on every single assumption many times; every word sometimes, about this. It's okay. It forced us to think.

And at the end of the day got our act together, and then went to the president and said, here's what we think. And he said, you know, I think I agree. All right, so what are we going to do? And we were able to lay that out.

To do that in that in the Middle East, with all the issues and with all the time-critical events going on, it was just night and day. And so those were the -- those were the two things. The thing that struck me is, boy, we got a raging inferno here, and there's not much you can do except put a steady stream of water and try and beat it down, and then we'll deal with the niceties later.

GIACOMO: Please join me in thanking Admiral Fallon. (Applause.)







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