I could have titled this one “Choosing Your Battles,” but the scope of the thing isn’t purely a matter of strategic or military considerations. It’s more about not being as stubborn as a mule while simultaneously being a horse’s ass…and before you ask, yes: I did search for equine metaphors and images before choosing the title above.
Chess players have a saying: “One lemon leads to another.” A good player who’s just realized that he’s made a strategic mistake will try hard to retreat from it. However, a lesser player will try to “justify” it with further bad moves. This is merely an expression of the human reluctance to admit to error: i.e., to concede that your game plan wasn’t well thought out.
Chess, of course, lacks the element of chance. Everything in the game is deliberate. Everything is visible except for the thoughts of the opponent. But games that incorporate chance can produce results that occasionally seem to justify a success-averse decision: i.e., they can award victory to the player who’s chosen to play against the odds. The player who doesn’t recognize that he’s defied the probabilities of his situation will be “reinforced” in his behavior by such an outcome.
To be maximally gentle about it, that seldom ends well.
I have in mind today two cases of strategies planned against the odds. One of them, entirely well intentioned from the beginning, might end in a great tragedy after a long period of seeming success. The other, whose perversity could have been foreseen ab initio, has already brought a great nation to grief out of pride and the unwillingness of its political class to retreat from a mistaken posture.
“The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong — but that’s the way to bet.” – Damon Runyan
If at the racetrack, you bet on a longshot and win, you’re likely to win big. But winnings are transient. There will be more races, in which the odds will favor certain outcomes. If you persist in betting against the odds, you’re likely to lose heavily. That’s why smart handicappers with strong track records are highly prized by racetracks and racing publications.
Geostrategy is similar. The game goes ever on. While a “player” is seldom “bankrupted” and thus eliminated from further “play,” it does happen now and then. Consider the fate of the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, or that of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.
It hardly needs to be said that no “player” in the Great Game actively wants to be eliminated. Yet men at the levers of power have made longshot bets that brought about the fall of their nations…and sometimes the loss of their own lives. Sometimes the consequences of those fatal decisions were long delayed, which can muddy the waters for strategists looking backward in time.
The State of Israel was founded in the midst of its enemies. Moreover, those enemies were and are animated by their religion. Never mind that Islam is a maniacal, homicidal creed that exalts violence against non-Muslims. What matters is that it proclaims its dictates to be the will of God. And how many times must it be said? Religious warriors never accept defeat. They win or they die.
Six million Israelis are surrounded by approximately 220 million Muslims who hate them with a wholly irrational passion. That passion is often expressed with explosives. As time has marched on, those explosives have grown mighty big. Eventually some Islamic power will acquire the capacity to wage nuclear terror against Israel. What are the odds that it will never happen?
For those who like their ironies blunt, Israel was also founded out of religious conviction: i.e., that historical Israel is the true and proper homeland of the Jewish people. As much as I want to see Israel survive and flourish, the whole nation is a bet against the odds and has been from the beginning. Unless some unimaginable event eliminates the entire Islamic population of the Middle East, or retracts the hatred and hostility prescribed to them by Islamic dogma, that bet will remain a longshot. Israel will never know peace.
It’s a friend of Israel who writes this, sadly and reluctantly to be sure. But the odds are what they are. To those who play the Great Game, nothing matters but power: its acquisition, retention, and enlargement.
In the first years after World War II, it probably seemed to American politicians that they could get away with anything. After all, we had the Bomb and no one else did. Besides, the other signatories of the Bretton Woods agreements hadn’t spotted the long-term consequences of that pact. And we’d demonstrated that we could and would send our young men and our weapons anywhere in support of a favored cause. The whole country was aflame with pride in American power and the victory it had achieved.
Let there be no mistake about it. Among ordinary Americans, that pride was essentially wholesome. Yes, it was founded on a kind of historical myopia. Moreover, anyone familiar with the dynamic of power would have realized that what We the People might intend is unlikely to march in lockstep with what the political elite would prefer. Still, our hearts were in the right place.
But the vision of a benevolent American Colossus bestriding the world, ruling it unopposed in the name of right and justice, lasted less than five years. That’s how long it took the Soviets to get the Bomb. Britain, France, Red China, and other nations soon acquired it too. So the vision of a Pax Americana guaranteed by our monopoly over atomic power could not be sustained. “Quality” had to be augmented by “quantity.”
In truth, the U.S. was successful at using its military might to impose our preferences in some faraway places. We failed singularly in Vietnam, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the determination of the political establishment to remain the “world policeman” did not flag after a “few setbacks.” The powerful never willingly relinquish their power…not even when events have proved that power illusory.
From the outset, it was a bet against the odds. In 1945, there were approximately 140 million Americans, out of a world population of 3 billion. America’s Gross National Product was slightly more than half of Gross World Product. Today the odds are even more dramatically against us: 330 million of us out of 8 billion. Our GDP is barely more than a quarter of the GWP. Present fertility rates continuing, the odds will lengthen still further.
Bets against lengthening odds become ever more likely to reap huge losses.
Trees do not grow to the sky. – Baron Philippe de Rothschild
The longer a trend has persisted, the more suspect it becomes. — “John Galt”
Every bankrupt gambler will tell you about his “system.” They all dream of recouping what they’ve lost. But a dream is usually what it is. It seldom manifests in reality.
Persistently betting against the odds courts the same sort of national bankruptcy as it does at the racetrack or the casino. This is not at all affected by rights or justice. Do the Jews of Israel have a right to exist? Of course they do, just as do you and I. Does that right armor them against the malice of the enemies that surround them? Afraid not. Despite their ever more exhausting military preparations, the Israelis must hope and trust in the benevolence of God. While I, too, trust in Divine benevolence, as has recently been said, it’s Pollyannaish to lean on your shovel and pray for a hole.
As for the perpetuation of America as Globocop, reality has been serving us notice these past two decades. Once again, rights and justice play no part in the matter. Whether our forces are deployed in good causes or bad ones hardly matters. We’re simply outnumbered and outgunned – and suffering an economy in decline, as well.
The late Walter Williams, in a column that excited much anger and vilification, once wrote that you have a perfect right to leave your wallet on top of your car, but that doesn’t affect the odds that it will be there when you return. The subject of that column was feminists’ strange belief that their right to dress as they please is all that matters – that the odds of being preyed on are irrelevant. That belief is and was so absolute that feminists treat accusing a woman of bad judgment for going scantily clad among predators as “blaming the victim.” Dr. Williams was talking good sense, not rights…but the message was rejected and the messenger attacked viciously. I’d expect the message of this column to be treated similarly.
Have a nice day.