WASHINGTON—In 2005, the nation's top military commander in the Pacific confronted Pentagon hawks who insisted he prepare for a future war with China, warning then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that the United States was headed for disaster if it insisted on confronting the Chinese militarily.
"There were people who warned me that you'd better get ready for the shoot 'em up here because sooner or later we're going to be at war with China," retired Navy Admiral William J. Fallon recalled. "I don't think that's where we want to go. And so I set about challenging all the assumptions."
In his first extensive interview since resigning from the Navy earlier this year, Fallon told the Globe that the US desperately needs to come up with a strategy for dealing peacefully with a rising China.
Fallon, currently a fellow at MIT's Center for International Studies, is well known for his differences with the Bush administration, especially over Iran policy. He resigned unexpectedly in March as chief of the US Central Command -- responsible for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- after publicly voicing criticism over its refusal to engage diplomatically with Iran. An Esquire magazine profile of Fallon in March -- in which he was quoted stating some of his Iran views -- set off the media firestorm leading to his resignation.
But it is clear that Fallon clashed with top Bush administration officials bent on using American military might over other levers of power -- such as diplomacy and economic cooperation -- several years before he took command of US forces in the Middle East in March 2007.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Globe on Monday, Fallon recalled that after he became chief of the US Pacific Command in 2005, "I came back here about once a month and sat down with Secretary Rumsfeld. I'd walk through what I was thinking, why I was thinking that way. There were people who didn't like that."
US-China relations had soured in 2005 after the Pentagon issued a high-profile report highlighting a growing threat from China, and after Rumsfeld publicly rebuked China's military build-up in a Singapore speech.
Describing the message he brought back from the region at the time, Fallon said he told his superiors, "What are the priorities, guys? Do you want to have a war [with China]? We can probably have one. But is that what you really want? Is that really in our interest? Because I don't think so."
The friction with some of his political bosses in Washington continued when Fallon, a former Navy pilot, was picked by Rumsfeld's successor, Robert M. Gates, to run Central Command in 2007, just as the "surge" of additional US combat forces was getting underway to try to quell skyrocketing violence, much of it blamed on neighboring Iran.
He said he quickly realized that dealing with Iraq's neighbors -- including Iran and Syria -- would be critical to bringing long-term security to Iraq -- not a popular position in the Bush administration.
"One of the challenges was as the guy in charge of the region I can't solve Iraq just from working the inside," Fallon said. "That's Gen. [David] Petraeus' game. He is my commander working inside Iraq. But I have to do something about the neighborhood and the idea that we were going to ignore Iran and Syria, for example, and just focus on Iraq was ridiculous."
Fallon told the Globe that the Esquire article was "unfortunate." "The story came out and it was obviously a political attack on the president and used me to put the president in a very awkward position. The rest of the news hounds jumped all over it and it became a free-for-all," he said.
Looking ahead, Fallon said he believes the war in Iraq "is essentially over."
"We have some combat activity still ongoing occasionally up in the Mosul area, but other than that it's pretty much over and been over," he said.
However, the war in Afghanistan, while showing some progress in recent months as a result of increased cooperation with neighboring Pakistan, is "probably a bigger challenge than Iraq," Fallon said.
He said Pakistan has had some success taking on Al Qaeda militants in South Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan, but it will be far more difficult in North Waziristan where Arab fundamentalists have married into the tribes and established strong links with the locals.
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.