SEC. GATES: Good afternoon.
Admiral William Fallon is, at this moment, issuing a statement announcing that he has asked my approval to step down, from his current duties as commander of U.S. Central Command, and retire. Admiral Fallon advised me of his decision early this morning. He told me that, quote, "The current embarrassing situation, public perception of differences between my views and administration policy, and the distraction this causes from the mission make this the rigbt thing to do," unquote.
I have approved Admiral Fallon's request, to retire, with reluctance and regret. Effective March 31st, Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, will serve as acting commander. He will serve in that capacity until such time as permanent relief can be nominated and confirmed.
Admiral Fallon has served his nation well throughout a distinguished military career for over 40 years, first in the Navy and then at the helm of two of the most important and dynamic operational commands, Pacific and Central Command. Fox Fallon has led our nation and hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform with conviction, strategic vision, integrity and courage.
Admiral Fallon fought bravely in the skies over Vietnam, commanded an air wing during Desert Storm and then went on to lead at the highest levels of the U.S. armed forces. As commander of CENTCOM, he has managed, with skill and diplomacy, the mounting challenges across the broader Middle East and has kept foremost in mind the need to protect our vital national security interests in the region.
Fox Fallon has dedicated his life to the preservation of the freedoms we in this nation enjoy today, and all Americans should be deeply grateful for his dedication. On behalf of the Department of Defense and the nation, I thank him for his years of selfless service.
Admiral Fallon reached this difficult decision entirely on his own. 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.
I'll take a few questions.
Q Is there any truth to the portrayal of Fallon as somebody who was trying to keep this country out of war with Iran, that he was the one arguing, against an administration that was eager to go to war with Iran, to stop that?
SEC. GATES: No. I think that's one of the misperceptions that Admiral Fallon was referring to. The fact is that administration policy is to try and deal with the Iranian challenge through diplomatic and economic pressures and sanctions. And Fox obviously was fully supportive of that.
Q Do you think he misspoke? Was he misrepresented? And do you -- have there been differences between he and the administration, albeit small, over Iranian policy?
SEC. GATES: No. I actually don't think there have been. As I say, I don't think there were -- I think there's a misperception to that effect. But I think if you look at the statements that I've made, that the secretary of State has made, the president has made, we've all talked about all options being on the table. But we've also focused on the importance of pursuing economic and diplomatic pressures against Iran.
So I don't think that they really were differences at all. And I think -- but I think there is this misperception out there that there were, and I don't know whether he was misinterpreted or whether people attributed views to him that were not his views. But clearly it was a concern that he had.
Q Mr. Secretary, when you announced his appointment, I think you said he had one of the finest strategic minds in the military or words to that effect. Why did you decide to accept this resignation at this time? And how big of a hole will that leave in your strategic thinking brain trust?
SEC. GATES: Well, Admiral Fallon will be difficult to replace. He is enormously talented and very experienced, and he does have a strategic vision that is rare. So it does leave a hole. We have a lot of very talented senior military officers, so I'm confident we'll be able to find a -- a skilled and qualified replacement.
But I -- you know, part of the problem here is -- and I think it's finally manifested in Admiral Fallon's decision that he communicated to me this morning -- is that we have tried between us to put this misperception behind us over a period of months and, frankly, just have not been successful in doing so.
Q Why is that?
SEC. GATES: I don't know the answer to that.
Q Secretary Gates, to take this a little bit further, you say there is no disagreement on policy, yet you agree with his decision to resign -- you agree with his decision to resign simply because there's a perception problem. Is that what you're saying?
SEC. GATES: He has said he -- in the statement that you will see, that is being issued from CENTCOM in his name, he talks about the distraction that the misperception has created and the awkwardness of it in his dealings around the world and so on. And so if you look -- when you get his statement, I think you'll be able to see in context the reason for his decision.
Q You agree that there is a distraction, I guess, was the point, then?
SEC. GATES: I agree with that. I agree. That's why I believe he has made the right decision.
Q Did you discuss this with the president before you accepted it?
SEC. GATES: I had -- the president has made clear all along that these matters are to be handled strictly within the Department of Defense. I communicated -- the president's traveling today; I communicated this morning, through the national security adviser, what Admiral Fallon had informed me and what I intended to do.
Q Was there a precipitating event? Did he wake up this morning and something happened that caused him to say "today is the day"?
SEC. GATES: Well, when you get the opportunity, you'll have to ask Admiral Fallon that. As I say, I think this is a cumulative kind of thing. It isn't the result of any one article or any one issue.
Q Admiral Fallon was supposed to lead the review of CENTCOM concerning the situation in Iraq, as well as General Petraeus -- (inaudible) -- chief of staff. Will Admiral Fallon('s) departure disrupt the process in any way? How is it going to be?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, as I indicate, Admiral Fallon will remain in place until the end of March. As I understand it, the Central Command review and evaluation is well advanced, and I'm confident will be complete before he leaves. So it will represent his views.
Q Sir, if I could just -- there was a line in that Esquire story that said that basically if Fallon gets fired, it means we're going to war with Iran. Can you just address that --
SEC. GATES: Well, it's just ridiculous. It's ridiculous -- (inaudible).
: Last question.
Q Mr. Secretary, you -- I mean, you said in your opening statement that this was an embarrassing situation. Admiral Fallon said it was an embarrassing situation. Doesn't that Esquire article and that one line open you up for even more criticism, the notion that this does signal the beginning of an opening for (war ?)?
SEC. GATES: Well, I am presented with dealing with Admiral Fallon's decision. And as I say, I think it's the right decision. As I say, the notion that this decision portends anything in terms of a change in Iran policy is, to quote myself, ridiculous.
Q Thank you.
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