Michael P. Noonan is the director of the program on national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Between the resignation of retired Army Gen. David Petraeus as the CIA director over an extramarital affair; the investigation of ISAF Commander Marine Gen. John Allen over E-mail communications with a Tampa socialite, the early retirement of former USAFRICOM Commander Lt. Gen. (down from General) Kip Ward for travel rule discrepancies, and the allegations against Army Brigadier Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair over an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, one might consider this to be a bad time to be a general or a flag rank officer. Some may even claim that some of the above may be the result of a political witch hunt or even some attempt by the Obama administration to re-assert civilian control, but it would probably be best to put things into a broader perspective and avoid overgeneralizations.
Now, to be clear, if allegations are proven correct, then these senior leaders should be held to the very same standards and punishments that lesser ranking subordinates receive—keeping in mind that the Uniformed Code of Military Justice does take into consideration past service and experience in determining punishments. But we should avoid painting with an overly wide brush about the potential behavior of such senior leaders and should also avoid succumbing to conspiracies absent facts. As of March 31, 2012, the Pentagon's personnel office indicated that there were 945 generals and admirals serving on active duty—and of these 38 were serving at the highest four-star general and admirals ranks. So even if allegations of inappropriate behavior are proven about serving officers, then you need to put this into the wider context of their being part of the 945 pool of serving general officer/flag officers.
Some might argue that even one slip up by such senior leaders is unacceptable. Theoretically that is even a compelling argument. But living in the real world exposes us to the frailties of being humans. People will make mistakes. People make mistakes every day. Senior political leaders need to deal with proven misbehavior accordingly and proportionally and not punish those for when appearances of impropriety may simply be derived from unfortunate correlations rather than from proven facts. To do otherwise would be to re-open an era of a zero defects mentality that might deprive the nation of competent senior leaders.