LITTLE ROCK -- The other day a scholarly panel at the University of Arkansas' branch here was discussing what everybody else in the country had been talking about, too: The causes and effects of the long-awaited demise of one Osama bin Laden at the hands of parties well known and much admired: SEAL Team 6.
One of the speakers, the university's director of international studies, said the SEALs' signal achievement vindicated this country's counter-terrorism strategy. No arguing with that. But then he had to add that the highly effective commando raid illustrated -- by contrast -- how costly and ineffective the whole war in Afghanistan had been. To which I would add only this scholarly comment:
Where does our foreign-policy expert think the choppers carrying these SEALs came from -- Mars?
Not likely. They were said to have trained repeatedly on a detailed mock-up of their objective till they got their trial run down to a brisk 30 minutes. (The actual raid took 38 -- from start to successful finish.) This all took place, according to news reports, at safe, secure Bagram Air Base -- in Afghanistan.
That huge complex, fortress and staging area is only a hop, skip and stop (at Jalalabad, also in Afghanistan) away from Abbottabad in Pakistan, the picturesque resort where Osama bin Laden was "hiding" in the midst of a sprawling military complex there.
It's hard to imagine such a raid or, for that matter, the whole war against al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts and various allies, without American forces having first freed Afghanistan from the enemy's grip.
But there are many who are now ready to proclaim Mission Accomplished in Afghanistan and pull out. Isn't that the same, almost fatal error the previous administration made in Iraq -- only to prolong that war and come entirely too close to losing it?
Not till the last president gave up on the Rumsfeldian fantasy of fighting a war on the cheap did the tide turn in Iraq under a new secretary of defense (Robert Gates) and a new commanding general (David Petraeus) with a new and successful strategy (the Surge).
To leave Afghanistan before it is secured would invite the same disaster there that we risked in Iraq not long ago. Costly and ineffective to win the war in Afghanistan? Not compared to losing it. And a premature departure might accomplish just that sad result.
Yet there are those who, now that Osama Bin Laden has been dispatched, would pull out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule, risking all that has been sacrificed there.
Among them is Leslie Gelb, pontificus emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations. Last week he took to the Wall Street Journal to make the case for withdrawing American combat troops from Afghanistan a couple of years ahead of schedule. After depicting the difficulties American policy has faced there, he concluded:
"The common-sense response to this hell hole is for the U.S. and NATO to complete their combat withdrawals by the beginning of 2013 -- not by the end of 2014 as now planned. That's sufficient time for friendly Afghans to prepare themselves...."
Such counsel proves only that isolationism is alive and well in American politics, as it usually is.
Why not? The isolationist impulse is part of our national psyche. After all, Americans became Americans to get away from age-old quarrels, not be dragged into them.
Isolationism always did offer the simplest solutions to the most complex questions, usually consisting of: Get Out. Or maybe just Never Get In. Mr. Gelb's air of easy assurance in all things military, political and diplomatic is in the finest isolationist tradition. Its reflexive response to any and all foreign threats never ceases to impress. Unfavorably.
Max Boot is Leslie Gelb's more far-sighted colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations. He warns that pulling out of Afghanistan before the Surge there has taken hold could prove a fatal error. Or as he explains:
"Only last fall did we finally surge to 100,000 American troops, along with 40,000 allied ones. For the first time, that gave us the capability to 'clear, hold and build.' ... But the gains achieved so far are tenuous and reversible. The Taliban are back on the offensive. It is vital to stick to the strategy NATO announced last fall of not putting Afghans in the lead until 2014. Moving too quickly to turn over control to unready forces can be disastrous...." That was the lesson of Iraq -- if we would but learn it.
Americans certainly do not seek an empire, but we have inherited imperial responsibilities by default in a world where NATO alone cannot be expected to defend freedom effectively. (See Libya.) We remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as we do in South Korea and Germany after all these years, not because we want to be there but to meet those imperial responsibilities that have fallen to our lot as the world's remaining superpower.
It was John Quincy Adams who pointed out that America "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." But what if the monsters come after us? We will defend ourselves -- well. Or let's hope so. Rather than heed those lulling voices that assure us we can defend ourselves cheaply, or for only a limited time. Or maybe just ignore the threat and trust it will go away. Wishful thinking has always been isolationism's handmaiden.
No matter how appealing isolationism's siren song in the midst of a long and bitter conflict, it isn't much of a defense. Hoping for the best and crawling into our shell is a perfectly understandable reaction to a dangerous world. It's just not a very effective one.
Osama bin Laden may be gone (thank you, U.S. Navy SEALs), but his successors wait for us to tire of the struggle. Let them wait. Till they, too, meet his fate. The way to avoid having to do this dirty job again is to do it right the first time. Thoroughly, completely, to the finish.
Why not give victory a chance?