WASHINGTON – Admirers of Adm. William J. Fallon salute his reputation for deft diplomacy. Judging from his first weeks as top commander of American forces in the Middle East, a talent for tact has served him well in many countries of the region except, perhaps, the one that matters most — Iraq.
Fallon is off to a quiet start as President Bush's surprise choice to succeed Army Gen. John Abizaid as head of Central Command. He is overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while managing military relationships with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other nations at the center of Bush's strategy in fighting terrorism.
About the biggest splash he has made was deciding to retire the phrase "Long War," which is how the Arabic-speaking Abizaid described the global conflict against Islamic extremists.
The term was used frequently by Pentagon officials but Fallon apparently was concerned it alienated Middle Eastern audiences.
The white-haired admiral is concerned, too, about alienating Iraqi leaders, and that troubles some in Washington.
Fallon told a Senate panel this month that his chief priority is securing Iraq. He described himself as "guardedly optimistic," but he tread lightly on the question of how to push the fractious Iraqi government into the political compromises deemed necessary to stabilize the country.
Push too hard, he warned, and Iraqis will lose confidence in the durability of U.S. support.
"If they get the perception that we are ... going to walk away from them, then this just encourages the factional militias," he said. So Fallon was reluctant, when pressed, to say explicitly that the Iraqis have not lived up to their promises.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was troubled that Fallon seemed unwilling to use tough talk with the Iraqis.
"I think your message is very much weakened, and it's troubling to me because you meet with the leaders of Iraq," Levin said, adding that Fallon had "let them off the hook."