Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s loose lips

There’s nothing new about backbiting and bad chemistry among leading public officials. But when the carping comes from a senior military officer and is directed against the president and his civilian advisers, a wall has been breached.

That’s the case with a series of disparaging comments attributed to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in an article in Rolling Stone magazine. According to the article, McChrystal criticized or ridiculed U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke and (according to aides) President Obama himself. (McChrystal reportedly thought that Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” at a meeting with military leaders at the Pentagon.)

Even though some of McChrystal’s opinions were filtered through aides, it’s clear that the general was out of line. Not only was he terribly foolish to speak so critically of his civilian bosses in such a public manner, but his comments raise legitimate questions about whether McChrystal can be counted on to faithfully carry out the Obama administration’s agenda in Afghanistan. Now he has been summoned to the White House on Wednesday, where he will or will not be fired. Which should it be?

Obviously that’s Obama’s choice, but it’s a complicated one. The president and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates removed McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, last year because they thought he was insufficiently innovative and reluctant to adopt strategies successfully employed in Iraq. But Obama and his inner circle don’t have similarly substantive concerns about how McChrystal is prosecuting the war. In fact, the administration considers McChrystal vital to its plan to draw down American troops in Afghanistan.

Nor, inappropriate as they were, do McChrystal’s comments rise to the level of insubordination that led President Truman to cashier Gen. Douglas MacArthur for suggesting, among other things, that the Korean War should be expanded to China. (They are, in fact, less troubling than public comments McChrystal made last year criticizing a counter-terrorism strategy favored by Vice President Joe Biden. He was dressed down, but not dismissed, for those remarks.)

Truman had no choice but to fire MacArthur; Obama is in a different position, even if McChrystal tenders his resignation. If the president continues to value the general’s service, he should reprimand him and return him to the field. Certainly Obama should resist the argument that he must fire McChrystal in order to establish his own authority. Succumbing to that sort of pressure would be a sign of insecurity, not self-confidence.

Unfortunately, McChrystal’s remarks are distracting attention from the graver question of whether this country’s increasingly costly involvement in Afghanistan is stabilizing that country and neutralizing the threat posed by terrorists to the United States. The best reason to bring McChrystal home for consultations Wednesday is not to upbraid him about his loose tongue; it’s to press him on whether the strategy he sold the president is working.