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Marching orders: Obama rightly curbs a runaway general

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President Barack Obama took months to decide whether the plan for a renewed effort in the Afghanistan war was the right one. He took little more than a day to decide that the general who advocated that plan should be fired for making disparaging comments about the president and his national security team in Rolling Stone magazine.

Mr. Obama's swift decision to remove Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan was the right one. In this democratic republic, generals report to the president, not the other way around -- a fact of American life that President Harry S. Truman made clear to Gen. Douglas MacArthur almost 60 years ago.

In this fresh challenge to presidential authority, Gen. McChrystal left the president with little choice but to relieve him. "The Runaway General," so titled in the Rolling Stone article, had to be corralled. Through his recklessness, arrogance and naivete about the effect of his rash criticism of top officials, Gen. McChrystal challenged the principle of civilian control of the military. More unforgivably, he also sowed divisiveness and mistrust at the highest levels of leadership in a time of war.

His complaints to Rolling Stone were more than just "a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened," as the general admitted in his earlier apology. They were also ungrateful.

This was not a case of a general standing up to a wrongheaded administration. Gen. McChrystal had lobbied strongly to the point of unseemliness that more troops be sent to Afghanistan ("I was selling an unsellable position," he was quoted in Rolling Stone about that period).

Curiously, in announcing the firing in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, Mr. Obama went out of his way to say that he accepted the general's resignation "not out of any sense of personal insult" but rather for "our national security." Yet he had every right to feel disrespected.

While he didn't send all the troops requested to Afghanistan, Mr. Obama bought the unsellable position the general was peddling and made it his own -- and his reward was to be put into a difficult bind. If he did not fire the general, he would be accused of being weak. If he did fire him, he would be accused of weakening the war effort.

By appointing Gen. David Petraeus to take over in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama took the sting out of the second complaint. No general has a better reputation than Gen. Petraeus and he is the perfect choice to replace a general who self-destructed just when the going in Afghanistan became much tougher by any measure.

Mr. Obama has made the first decision well, but he hasn't yet made the second, more fateful one -- to begin a U.S. withdrawal. As we have said before, Afghanistan has become a hopeless case. The problem is not this general or that; it is the mission itself.

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