The America of 2021 is a constant game of tug of war between high and low expectations. At one extreme, “Team High” is all about striving. Which billionaire will almost make it to outer space first? Which athlete will push the envelope to perform better? Which company has the highest market cap regardless of fundamentals? Which students will have a longer list of extracurricular activities on their resumes?
At the other extreme, “Team Low” suggests all this striving leads to unhappiness and anxiety. Dr. Jeremy Sherman made this point in a 2014 article in Psychology Today, presenting a counter-intuitive take on an oft-told story about optimism.
The joke goes that a child was so optimistic that, to test the extent of his optimism, his parents gave him a pile of horse manure. The kid’s eyes open wide with delight. He dives into the pile and starts digging.
“What are you doing?” his parents ask.
The kid replies, “With this much manure, I’m betting there’s a pony in here!”
Imagine his disappointment when there wasn’t.
For “Team Low,” being in the game is enough. That participation trophy is a monument to trying, even when it does not lead to success. Taking on a challenge is its own reward. The journey, not the destination, is the source of the highest dividends.
As in most debates, the answer is probably somewhere between these extremes. However, there is a bigger problem which I will call “situation expectations.” It is not uncommon that one’s definition of success or failure will depend on the specifics of a given situation. However, in this case, individuals occasionally adjust their position in the middle of an on-going scenario. This is sometimes referred to as “moving the goalposts,” though it is more akin to donning an opponents’ uniform in the middle of a game.
Consider the recent exploits of the golfer we love to hate Bryson DeChambeau as an example of how expectations can change in a matter of hours. During the second round of the BMW Championship, after an eagle on the 16th hole, DeChambeau was in reach of a 59 with one birdie on either of the last two holes. Missed putts of 17 feet on the 17th and six feet on the 18th resulted in “only” a course and tournament record 60, 12 strokes under par. In the post-round interview, DeChambeau did not hesitate to voice his disappointment about misreading the putt on 18. “I wanted to make it so bad.”
Rewind the video (I know, an anachronism) to DeChambeau standing on the first tee at the start of his second round. Imagine if someone had asked, “Would you be satisfied if you could shoot 60 today and be tied for the lead going into Saturday’s third round?” There is only one response. “HELL YEAH!” Of course, the irony is that missed six foot putt on Friday was the difference between taking home the BMW trophy and losing in a six-hole playoff on to Patrick Cantlay on Sunday.
Which brings me to the question of expectations when it comes to war and peace. Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush rallied the international community to avenge the attack on the United States. The goal: punish those directly responsible and disrupt potential future attacks. Operation Enduring Freedom was initiated on September 26 when a CIA team arrived in Afghanistan to analyze the situation and identify potential anti-Taliban allies. Soon thereafter, American and British special forces with U.S. air support pursued al-Qaeda militants in the Tora Bora region, forcing the survivors to retreat into Pakistan. One could argue “First Tee” expectations, with the exception of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, were met when U.S. and Afghan forces decimated the 800 remaining al-Qaeda fighters in Paktia province in March 2002.
Perhaps initial success in Afghanistan came too easy (just as it again did in Iraq). Why stop here? Especially when anti-Taliban Afghans from the Northern provinces, led by Hamid Karzai, were eager to take complete control of the country even though U.S. military leadership on the ground advised against supporting the broader offensive. President Bush then moved the goal posts with the April 2002 announcement of a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, financial aid accompanied by an International Security Assistance Force as a counter-insurgency measure. A lot transpired over the next 20 years, but I will leave that to historians to parse.
Which brings us to August 2021 during which expectations rose and fell faster and more frequently than the wave at a college football game.
- Expectation #1: An equipped and trained security force of 300,000 Afghans could hold off Taliban advances long enough for an orderly evacuation of U.S. citizens and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders.
- Expectation #2: Once Kabul fell to the Taliban, the possibility of a mass evacuation was slim and none. On August 19, CNN foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward estimated American forces would be lucky if they got 50,000 evacuees to safety.
- Expectation #3: Deploying 5,000 U.S. troops to secure a small geographic footprint surrounded by hostile forces (Taliban and ISIS-K) was extremely risky.
- Expectation #4: Sending troops to secure the evacuation would require an extension of Biden’s August 31 departure deadline.
- Expectation #5: Following the tragic loss of 13 service men and women, additional suicide bombings or worse, i.e. rocket attacks on departing aircraft, were likely.
- Expectation #6: As U.S. forces began to leave, the last remaining contingent would be “sitting ducks.”
Imagine a meeting of the National Security Council in the White House situation room immediately following the fall of Kabul. President Joe Biden asks for an honest assessment of the next 17 days. National security advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin paint the following scenario.
For a couple of days there will be complete chaos until we can secure the perimeter of the airport with approximately 5,000 troops. By the third day we should be able to begin a round-the-clock airlift evacuating as many as 18,000 people per day. By the departure date August 31, we estimate we can evacuate a total of 125,000 U.S. citizens and SIV recipients.
U.S. troops will need to be within close contact of Taliban forces and potential terrorists. We cannot guarantee there will be no casualties. We should expect 25-50. However, we will be able to protect the airfield and planes from incoming rockets and secure the area until the last plane takes off.
Biden suggests they have painted a far too rosy picture and asks for the worse case scenario. It is not pretty. Decimated runways shutting down the airlift. A filled mess hall or barracks becomes the target of an ISIS rocket. A downed C-17 with 600 evacuees and troops killed. Every critic and many pundits raised these possibilities, yet said nothing when they did not happen.
Which brings me to my last point about expectations. Americans should heed the axiom, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” [NOTE: The origin of this phrase is attributed to Voltaire who wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary, “The best is the enemy of the good.”] Every PGA and LPGA tour player would love to shoot an ideal score, 16 birdies and a couple of eagles for good measure. But they have not given up the game because it is, for all practical purposes, out of reach. Instead, they yell, “FORE,” to acknowledge the errant shot, look for opportunities to recover and know the final tally never rests on a single stroke.
For what it’s worth.