The Losing Gambler Syndrome is a fact of the human condition that casino magnates have come to well understand. When someone loses big at the tables, almost always they have an overwhelming urge to invest ever more resources to make good on their catastrophic losses, rarely bothering to think about the reasons for these losses in the first place. Dad cannot go back to Mom telling her he has lost the kids’ college fund at the roulette table, so he keeps playing . . . and keeps losing. The reason for his demise—the terrible odds—is never analytically addressed.
Policymakers are not immune to this folly, often doubling down on a bad assessment emotionally in order to wipe the slate clean of their intellectual mistakes. I saw this doleful analytical process up close and personal in Washington as the Iraq War slid toward the abyss; very often those policymakers urging ever-greater efforts in Iraq from the American people did so largely to make good on their already monumental strategic losses.
History’s graveyard is replete with losing gamblers
Anyone who has ever walked the mile and a half in that beautiful, tragic open field between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges at Gettysburg knows that the Confederate assault on the third day of the battle should never have been made. The simple reason for Pickett’s disastrous charge is that Robert E. Lee had emotionally invested too much at Gettysburg to easily turn back. The famed Confederate general was both desperate and overconfident, a fatal combination. Lee was held intellectual hostage by his tantalizing near success (and actual failure) on the second day of the battle, becoming an unwitting prisoner of the Losing Gambler Syndrome.
Likewise, as the years rolled by without the United States ever finding a political ally in South Vietnam with local political legitimacy, it never seems to have occurred to Lyndon Johnson that the lack of such a partner was a sure sign to get out, not to redouble his efforts.
When will they ever learn?
Tragically, the losing gambler’s curse continues today, with America’s seemingly endless war in Afghanistan being a textbook example. Within of few months of 9/11, American-led forces had routed the Taliban and dislodged al-Qaeda from its bases. However, then the war goals fatefully shifted. To prevent al-Qaeda’s resurgence, the US ended up endlessly propping up weak, corrupt, unrepresentative governments in Kabul.
As these governments did not have sufficient organic political legitimacy, the US found itself mired in an unwinnable situation, as without Taliban involvement in the central government (the Taliban represent almost exclusively the interests of the Pashtun, the largest single tribe in the country) any local rule was bound to be seen as inherently unrepresentative. This political reality is at the base of the 16-year unwinnable war in Afghanistan.
Doubling down yet again
Yet President Trump’s ‘new plan’ (there have been an endless number of these over the past decade and a half) does nothing do to deal with this central political conundrum. Despite in his campaign saying the war in Afghanistan had been ‘a total disaster,’ the President was persuaded by his respected Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, to increase American troop levels in-country to 16,000, ignoring the fact that during the Obama administration 100,000 American soldiers had been fighting there, all to no avail.
I suspect a key reason for this strange decision is that both Generals Mattis and McMaster served with distinction in Afghanistan. Like Lee, President Johnson, and the neo-conservatives huddled around George W. Bush, both have invested too much emotionally and practically to turn back, whatever the fearful odds.
So an unwinnable war is set to continue, as the unsolvable political reality at its base goes unremarked upon. The losing gambler’s syndrome tells us that once resources and intellectual credibility have been expended, it is all too tempting, whether met with crisis or entranced by near-success, to keep doing what has been failing up until that point. It is entirely understandable to do this, but as Gettysburg, Vietnam, and Iraq point out, practically disastrous. Policymakers must instead have the courage to look at failure straight in the eye and make adjustments to mitigate its effects, rather than doubling down and inviting more.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a prominent global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, will be published by Princeton University Press in April 2018. It is available now for order on Amazon.