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Globe Editorial

General’s embarrassing words shouldn’t get him fired

June 23, 2010

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THERE MAY yet be reasons for President Obama to dismiss his commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, but allowing a Rolling Stone reporter to tag along for a boozy mission to France isn’t one of them. In the subsequent article, McChrystal comes off as crudely dismissive of the political appointees he must deal with, and prone to frattish banter with an ever-present cadre of sycophantic aides. The cringe-worthy scene in which McChrystal engages in a night of drunken partying with his entourage — on his 33rd anniversary, no less, with his wife in attendance — and then solemnly declares “I’d die for them,’’ may be punishment enough for a man reputed to be a brilliant strategist.

But none of this bears on his job as commander. And the civilian control of the military is in no danger, unless making doo-doo jokes about uber-envoy Richard Holbrooke is a threat to the Constitution. There’s nothing in the article that is a firing offense.

Still, everyone described in the article, from McChrystal to Obama, should be deeply embarrassed. And McChrystal’s smirking, intemperate behavior comes in the wake of his previous criticism of Vice President Joe Biden’s proposal for Afghanistan and his vaguely insubordinate suggestion that he couldn’t back Biden’s plan, even if Obama chose to enact it. So McChrystal is probably overdue for another dressing-down.

Ultimately, though, McChrystal should be judged on the results of his counterinsurgency strategy, not on whether his underlings twist the vice president’s last name into a locker-room insult. There isn’t yet much reason to declare McChrystal’s strategy a success, but it’s still a year from the president’s self-imposed deadline — and it’s too early to give up.

There’s a further danger in overreacting to the McChrystal flap. Generals usually err on the side of secrecy, lack of candor, and over-deference to their political bosses. Whatever McChrystal’s flaws, he’s no one’s toady. During the tenure of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, generals who failed to fall into lockstep with administration policy were punished; yes-men like former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairmen Richard Myers and Peter Pace were promoted instead.

The military shouldn’t be made to feel that stiff-arming the media and putting on fake shows of confidence is the best way to climb the ladder. McChrystal and his superiors — Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen, and General David Petraeus — share an aura of alertness and competence that is enhanced by their willingness to challenge conventional wisdom at times.

Memo to McChrystal: Independence is usually a virtue. Just stay away from France, and don’t make up unflattering nicknames about civilian colleagues.

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