The White House denied Wednesday that a rift over Iran cost the commander of US forces in the Middle East his job and said no one inside the US government was even suggesting war against Tehran.
But spokeswoman Dana Perino said President George W. Bush could not rule out using force in the dispute over the Islamic republic's nuclear program because that "helps make diplomacy work and make it more effective."
"It's true that the president has not taken any option off the table, but no Commander-in-Chief would ever do that and be representing America well," she said. "There's no dissenting view when it comes to that."
But "there's no one in the administration that is suggesting anything other than a diplomatic approach to Iran," she told reporters one day after Admiral William Fallon resigned after media reports that he broke with Bush's strategy.
Asked about charges that Fallon's depature after not quite one year at the helm of the US Central Command showed that the president does not brook dissent, Perino replied: "I think that it's nonsense."
"The president welcomes robust and healthy debate," she said. "He has dissenting views on a variety of issues that get worked out through a policy process - that is usually not played out in the press."
Fallon said in a statement Tuesday that he was stepping down because media reports that he differed with Bush over Iran had become "a distraction" - without specifically citing an Esquire magazine article believe to be central.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced he had accepted Fallon's resignation "with reluctance and regret," saying there was a "misperception" that the admiral was at odds with the administration over Iran.
"The president wanted this issue to be handled by Secretary Gates, and he thinks that Secretary Gates handled it appropriately," but Bush "didn't express an opinion" on whether Fallon should be fired, said Perino.
But the sudden departure of the head of the US Central Command drew an avalanche of criticism from top Democrats who suggested that he had been forced out because of his candor.
Asked about Esquire's contention that Fallon's removal would signal the United States was preparing to go to war with Iran, Gates said: "Well, that's just ridiculous."
In an admiring profile of the admiral, Esquire writer Thomas Barnett portrayed Fallon as "The Man Between War and Peace," crediting him with calming tensions with Iran last year while bucking a White House move toward war.
"Well-placed observers now say that it will come as no surprise if Fallon is relieved of his command before his time is up next spring, maybe as early as this summer, in favor of a commander the White House considers to be more pliable," said the article.
"If that were to happen, it may well mean that the president and vice president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year and don't want a commander standing in their way."
Fallon also drew media attention in November when Bush stepped up his rhetoric against Iran, publicly warning in an interview with the Financial Times that the drumbeat of press speculation about US military options was not helpful.
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