The High Cost of Inaction

There's now a lull after our stunning victory against Taliban troops in Afghanistan. Americans calling for another assault — this one against the most important terrorist, the tyrant in Iraq — are being quieted, or ignored. The minds of many Americans are wandering. We're now thinking about Enron, the economy and local issues.

Yet before public satisfaction seeps any further, we should grasp the high cost of inaction.

Hence we should remember Meade at Gettysburg. Not the general that won the critical battle. That he did, and in stunning fashion. But the general who wouldn't finish the job. 

Gen. George Gordon Meade, brand new in command in that July of 1863, felt the flush of victory, which was all too rare for Union forces before the Gettysburg battle. But rather than risk tarnishing this long-awaited Union success, Meade chose the easy option. He basked in his great victory and neglected to pursue Gen. Robert E. Lee's army any further.

Meade's army had the emotional high that comes from great victory only a few days before. And Meade's army enjoyed clear superiority. He had some 80,000 Union troops after the Gettysburg battle, while Lee had only 56,000 left.

Yet rather than following up his battlefield victory with a more vital rout of the enemy's army, Meade let Lee cross from Pennsylvania and Maryland, across the Potomac River, back into safe Confederate territory in Virginia. He let Lee's army escape, when he could have demolished it and virtually ended the Civil War more than nine months, and tens of thousands of deaths, before it ended.

Ever the broad, strategic thinker, Lincoln realized what had just happened. Though pleased with the battlefield victory, Lincoln was fixated on winning the war. He instantly realized the high cost of Meade's inaction.

Back in Washington, commanding Gen. Henry Wager Halleck knew his boss' mind when he sent Meade the telegram reporting that "the escape of Lee's army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the president."

What does this have to do with us? 

Everything. Even after winning the battlefield of Afghanistan, we must continue to fight and win the war against terrorism. We cannot lean back, let our minds wander back to pre-Sept. 11 concerns, and refuse to pursue the enemy with everything we've got. 

The larger enemy is the most vicious and dangerous of terrorist leaders, Saddam Hussein.  For unlike Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which inhabit the wasteland of Afghanistan and hang around caves, the Iraqi president occupies presidential palaces and commands vast resources. His hundreds of government labs can make chemical weapons, even anthrax. He and his institutions can make biological and nuclear weapons.

And rather than inflict them upon us himself, Saddam can hand these weapons of mass destruction off to his terrorist buddies, making his own contribution to the international terrorist network which is as stealthy as it is vicious.

So while Usama bin Laden and his terrorist networks are treacherous, terrorist states are even worse. For they have the abundant diplomatic, economic, scientific, and military assets of a state, rather than the relatively skimpy assets of a private group.

So far, so good on America's war against terrorism. But, please, no complacency. No pause. No loss of focus. No reluctance to follow a victory on one battlefield with an even more decisive move to win the war. Let's not resemble Meade after Gettysburg.

Kenneth Adelman is a frequent guest commentator on Fox News, was assistant to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from 1975 to 1977 and, under President Ronald Reagan, U.N. ambassador and arms-control director. Mr. Adelman is now co-host of

Respond to the Writer