Will the US ever escape the Losing Gambler Syndrome in Afghanistan?

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. 

 

We should worry less about Russia, and more about China

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk firm. His new book is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Before the press gets the vapours about what I am saying, here are the facts. Russia’s GDP is about the size of the state of Texas. As Dmitry Medvedev has glumly made clear, it remains a one-trick pony utterly dependent every day on the spot price of oil and natural gas, as this remains the only vibrant sector of the Russian economy.

Moscow has suffered estimated losses of around $40 billion due to the surprisingly effective sanctions enacted in the aftermath of Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Russia is thought to lose another $30 billion a year due to endemic corruption, while the collapse of the global price of energy over the past years has crippled the country to the tune of another $30 billion. Demographically, Russia is in real danger, with the population alarmingly set to shrink by ten per cent before 2050. Russia is dangerous because it is weak, not due to its strength. We do Putin a favour to make him our equal when he is so obviously not.

However, the real peril here is that the hysteria whipped up by the Salisbury case analytically obscures the true geostrategic danger out there; the rise of China as a revolutionary power that wishes to dominate East Asia and shred the norms of the western-inspired world order. While we fiddle with the Kremlin, ignoring China ensures that Rome burns.

In China, a new superpower is rising, one that is ignored by much of the British press and politicians alike because little is known of it and it is too far away to be thought of. Such a shameful lack of curiosity won’t do in our new multipolar order. Given its four decades of unprecedented economic growth, booming defence spending (now the second largest in the world) and utter disregard for international norms (it recently lost its nine-dash line arbitration South China Sea case in The Hague and nothing happened, with Beijing merely cavalierly ignoring the ruling) there is a real geostrategic danger in front of us, while we obsess about an old danger long past.

And it is not only that China’s power—unlike Russia’s—is on the rise. With Xi Jinping intent on ruling indefinitely, it is becoming painfully clear that the West has lost its strategic bet about Beijing. It was hoped that as the world accommodated China as a rising power (through agreeing to its entry into the World Trade Organisation), as China became both richer and more enmeshed in the global economic order, it would also become both more pluralist and more conservative, transforming itself into a benign (in Western eyes) status quo power, determined to defend the present western-inspired order.

That bet now appears to have been definitively lost, as despite its wondrous growth Beijing has become even more authoritarian and increasingly determined to re-write global norms, from island-building in the South China Sea through using its ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) modern version of the Marshall Plan to economically link and then dominate much of Asia and Africa, to its bending their politics, over time, to its will.

Only China has the means, motive, and opportunity to over time threaten and supplant the present western-inspired global order. Putin makes a wonderful Bond villain but he mustn’t be allowed to obscure the geostrategic reality that dealing with revolutionary power China is the name of the game in our new era.

Published in Conservative Home, March 26, 2018. 

Everything to play for: Winston Churchill, the rise of Asia, and game changers

The ability to know when game-changing events are actually happening in real time is to see history moving. It is an invaluable commandment in the mastering of political risk analysis. To do so, an analyst must adopt an almost Olympian view, seeing beyond the immediate to make sense of what is going on now by placing it into the broader tapestry of world history itself.

The rewards for this rare but necessary ability are legion, for it allows the policy-maker or analyst to make real sense of the present, assessing the true context of what is going on presently and what is likely to happen in the future. It is jarring to compare the lacklustre abilities of today’s Western politicians—so far behind the curve in seeing the game-changing rise of Asia and the decline of the West as we enter a new multipolar age—to the phenomenal analytical abilities of earlier statesmen of vision, such as the querulous, needy, challenging, maddening, often wrongheaded but overwhelmingly talented greatest Prime Minister of England.

Churchill Rejoices over Pearl Harbor

 In the hustle and bustle of the everyday world, recognizing game-changing events can prove exceedingly difficult. Being surrounded by monumental goings on makes separating the very important from the essential almost impossible. So it was in December 1941, undoubtedly the turning point of the Second World War. During that momentous month, the Red Army turned back the Nazi invasion at the very gates of Moscow, marking the first time Hitler’s war machine had met with a real setback. But for all that the Battle of Moscow mattered enormously, it did nothing to change the overall balance of forces fighting the war, with the outcome still sitting on a knife’s edge.

But half a world away, something else did. At 7:48 AM in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the Imperial Navy of the Empire of Japan, attacking without warning as it had done in the earlier Russo-Japanese War, unleashed itself against the American Pacific Fleet, serenely docked at Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning. The damage was immense. All eight American battleships docked at Pearl were struck, and four of them sunk. The Japanese attack destroyed 188 US aircraft, while 2,400 were killed and 1,200 wounded. Japanese losses were negligible.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor misfired spectacularly, changing the course of the war fundamentally, drawing America into the conflict as the decisive force which altered the correlation of power around the world. Stalin, with his back still to the wall in the snows of Russia, did not immediately grasp the game-changing significance what had just happened any more than Franklin Roosevelt did, now grimly intent on surveying the wreckage of America’s Pacific Fleet and marshalling the American public for global war.

These were pressing times and it is entirely human and understandable why both Stalin and FDR had other more immediate concerns to worry about during those early December days. But Winston Churchill, the last of the Big Three, immediately latched onto the game-changing significance of what had just occurred. For the Prime Minister understood, even in the chaos of that moment, that the misguided Japanese attack has just won Britain and its allies the war and amounted to the game changer a hard-pressed London had been praying for.

In his history of World War II, Churchill wrote of that seminal day, ‘Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.’ The great British Prime Minister slept well that night because he understood the fluidity of geopolitics, how a single event can change the overall global balance of power overnight, if one can but see.

On December 11, 1941, compounding Tokyo’s incredible blunder, Germany suicidally declared war on America. Hitler, vastly underestimating the endless productive capacity of the United States, didn’t think the declaration mattered all that much. The miscalculation was to prove his doom, as the US largely bankrolled both its Russian and British allies, supplying them with both massive loans and a limitless supply of armaments and material. Because of Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s disastrous decision, America would eventually eradicate the dark night of Nazi barbarism. Churchill was right in alone seeing the full consequences of what was going on at that pivotal time. December 1941 saved the world.

The decline of the West and the rise of Asia is the headline of our times

 In the crush of our 24-hour news cycle, it is all too easy—as it was during the stirring days of World War II—to miss the analytical forest for the trees. Confusing the interesting from the pivotal, the fascinating from the essential, remains an occupational hazard for both policy-makers and political risk analysts. But beneath the sensory overload of constant news, the headline of our own time is clear, if like Churchill we can but see.

Our age is one where the world is moving from the easy dominance of America’s unipolar moment to a multipolar world of many powers. It is characterised by the end of 500-plus years of western dominance, as Asia (especially with the rise of China and then India) is where most of the world’s future growth will come from, as well as a great deal of its future political risk. The days of International Relations being largely centred on Transatlantic Relations are well and truly at an end, as an economically sclerotic and demographically crippled Europe recedes as a power, and even the United States (still by far the most powerful country in the world) sinks into relative decline.

To understand the world of the future requires a knowledge of Asia as well as Europe, of macroeconomics as well as military strategy, of countries the West has given precious little thought to, such as China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico, as well as the usual suspects such as a declining Russia and Europe. International Relations has become truly ‘international’ again. And that, coupled with the decline of the West and the Rise of Asia, is the undoubted headline of the age. Churchill, and all first rate analysts who understand the absolute value of perceiving game-changing events, would surely have agreed.

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 pre-eminent foreign policy organisation. 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 and is available for order on Amazon.