(photo credit: AP)
The timing of US Vice President Dick Cheney's visit here next week, coming right after Tuesday's resignation by Adm. William J. Fallon as America's chief military commander in the Middle East, may simply be coincidence.
But don't bet on it - or at least this is how it will be seen.
Since being appointed as head of the Central Command last year, Fallon has emerged as the major dissenting voice within the US military against the Bush administration's tough stance toward the Iranian nuclear program, a policy championed by Cheney.
In the statement released with his resignation, Fallon acknowledged that "recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the president's policy objectives have become a distraction at a critical time."
The report that seems to have triggered the admiral's departure was a recent profile/interview in Esquire that began: "If, in the dying light of the Bush administration, we go to war with Iran, it'll all come down to one man. If we do not go to war with Iran, it'll come down to the same man, and a man of strategic brilliance. His name is William Fallon, although all of his friends call him 'Fox.'"
Whatever craftiness this particular Fox possessed doesn't seem, though, to have extended to career survival in the Bush government, which has demonstrated little tolerance for military commanders who speak their mind in public, especially when raising doubts about administration policy.
Fallon twice last autumn told journalists he was against a military strike on Iran, adding on one occasion: "This constant drumbeat of conflict... is not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for."
Such a remark, wrote Esquire's Thomas Barnett, "are fighting words to your average neo-con - not to mention your average supporter of Israel, a good many of whom in Washington seem never to have served a minute in uniform."
Fallon had to go, and to go before Cheney arrived here on Sunday; that's how some commentators are interpreting his resignation.
"This was George Bush's going-away present to his vice president on the eve of Cheney's tour of the Middle East... Cheney just did not want this Fox around his Middle East henhouse," wrote former US ambassador Marc Ginsberg on The Huffington Post on-line news site.
Others are reading even more significance into the vice president's trip. After leaving Israel, Cheney journeys to Saudi Arabia and Oman - the latter the site of four air force bases strategically situated on the Straits of Hormuz, right across from Iran, and regularly used by the US military for refueling, supply storage and logistics. Both nations would play key roles in the run-up to any military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, and the timing of Cheney's visits there, combined with Fallon's farewell, has raised red flags in Washington and elsewhere that they may be signs Bush has taken a strategic decision to move against Teheran before leaving office.
Writing in US News & World Report this week, Terry Atlas linked the two events conspiratorially with last September's Israel Air Force strike on an alleged Syrian nuclear facility ("to force Syria to switch on the targeting electronics for newly received Russian anti-aircraft defenses") and even to the Second Lebanon War ("while this seems a bit old, Israel's July 2006 war in Lebanon against Iranian-backed Hizbullah forces was seen at the time as a step that Israel would want to take if it anticipated a clash with Iran") as among a number of signs that the US - with Israel's help - is indeed heading for war with Iran.
Before beating those drums, though, let's back up a bit. To begin with, Iran wasn't the only issue in the region on which Fallon disagreed with the White House; he was also pessimistic about the long-term value of the US troop surge in Iraq and reportedly irked by the special authority granted on that battlefield to his Centcom subordinate, Gen. David Petraeus. With Petraeus scheduled to testify about on the Iraq situation next month to a skeptical Congress, the White House may have decided it was better to have Fallon off the scene by then.
Even if Iran was the crucial sticking point between the Bush administration and Fallon, his departure doesn't necessarily mean that American fighter jets will be seen in the skies above Bushehr and Natanz anytime soon - or ever.
Even if Washington has decided for now not to attack Iran, it certainly would prefer to have Teheran - and everyone else - not knowing that for sure. The very possibility of such a strike is one of the prime motivators in getting the international community behind stronger diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran, as the final peaceful alternative to military action. In this view, the "drumbeat of conflict" can in fact be useful, if it serves as a persuasive means of helping to get stronger measures passed in the UN Security Council, and to convince Iran's rulers (the ones saner than Mahmoud Amadinejad) just how high the price might be that they will pay for their nuclear dreams.
Sending Dick Cheney to the region is certainly one way of rattling both the sabers and the Iranian cage - as is removing from the scene the US military commander who reassured Esquire, and the rest of the world, "I am the reasonable one," when it comes to Iran.
Clearly, the Bush administration prefers that Iran believe the US presence sitting right on its doorstep is less a reasonable fox, and much more a big bad wolf.