WASHINGTON -- Adm. William J. Fallon, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, whose views on Iran and other issues have seemed to put him at odds with the Bush administration, is retiring early, the Pentagon said yesterday.
The retirement of Fallon, 63, who only a year ago became the first Navy officer to be named the commander of the U.S. Central Command, was announced by his civilian boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who said that he accepted the admiral's retirement request "with reluctance and regret."
Despite the warm words, there was no question that the admiral's premature departure stemmed from policy differences with the administration and with Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq.
Gates acknowledged as much when he said that Fallon, in asking permission yesterday morning to retire, had expressed concern that the controversy over his views was becoming "a distraction." But the secretary labeled as "ridiculous" any speculation that the admiral's retirement portends a more bellicose U.S. approach toward Iran.
Fallon had rankled senior officials of the Bush administration with outspoken comments on such issues as dealing with Iran and on setting the pace of troop reductions from Iraq - even though his comments were well within the range of views expressed by Gates.
Officials said the last straw came in an article in Esquire magazine by Thomas P.M. Barnett, a respected military analyst, that profiled Fallon under the headline, "The Man Between War and Peace."
The article highlighted comments Fallon made to the Arab television station Al-Jazeera in the fall, in which he said that a "constant drumbeat of conflict" from Washington that was directed at Iran and Iraq was "not helpful and not useful."
"I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for. We ought to try to do our utmost to create different conditions," he said.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, was asked at a news briefing Monday to comment on the controversy. Morrell said Gates and the admiral maintained a good working relationship, but that, like all military commanders, Fallon served at the pleasure of the president.
Gates said yesterday that Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey would take Fallon's place until a permanent replacement is nominated and confirmed by the Senate.
The Esquire article quotes Fallon as urging a "combination of strength and willingness to engage."
Readers of the Esquire article who are among the admiral's boosters said they did not believe on reading that piece that Fallon had made comments that could be viewed as insubordinate to the president.
But the cast of the lengthy piece put the admiral at odds with the White House.
"If, in the dying light of the Bush administration, we go to war with Iran, it'll all come down to one man," the article begins. "If we do not go to war with Iran, it'll come down to the same man."
Pressed to assess the article's premise that Fallon was essentially the one man standing between President Bush and war with Iran, Morrell joked that, "based upon the articles that have been written previously, that that was the secretary's role."
Both Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have maintained an unwavering public line that disagreements with Iran should be resolved diplomatically and that any military option remained only the last resort.
When Fallon was nominated in January 2007 to be commander of U.S. military forces across a region where they are engaged in two ground wars, it struck many analysts as odd. When he was confirmed for the post, he replaced Gen. John Abizaid as the top officer of Central Command.
At the time, a range of senior Pentagon civilians and military officers said Gates had recommended that Fallon move from his post as commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific to bring a new strategic view as well as maritime experience to the Middle East.
Although known for being tough on subordinates, Fallon also developed a reputation for nuanced diplomatic negotiations with friendly nations - and some with whom the United States has more prickly ties. Earlier in his career, when he was the U.S. military commander in the Pacific, he annoyed conservatives by taking what they considered an overly conciliatory stance toward China.