Two Quagmires: Greece and Afghanistan

“Viet Nam is our great adventure—and a wonderful one it is!”

-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (1967)

In a single, 24-hour news cycle, I caught two stories that left me wondering whether to laugh or cry. What’s the underlying similarity of the European Union (EU) agreeing to unlock loans of 8.5 billion euros for Greece, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordering as many as 5,000 troops to Afghanistan?  They’re both manifestations of the all too human tendency to be susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy.

For all of us, here’s a quick refresher:  the sunk cost fallacy describes how people justify increasing their investment of money, time, and lives into what are, quite frankly, hopeless situations. Prior costs won’t pay off. Behind this escalation of commitment lies another term: loss aversion. Human nature is to ignore or downplay the prospect of losses because then you have to admit to lapses of judgment, both to yourself and others. It’s far easier to maintain (false) optimism and a belief that you can still will a positive outcome.

Let’s start with Afghanistan, and Mattis’s latest testimony before Congress.  “We’re not winning in Afghanistan right now and we will correct this as soon as possible,” the General told the Armed Services Committee. Sounds plausible, right? But that’s not true if you’re watching the facial expressions that accompany Mattis’s statement. After “right now,” the General’s glance lowers and stays low in an unmistakable sign of sadness. He’s on-emotion, faithfully conveying emotionally what his message is: I’m disappointed in events there.

What’s off-emotion, however, is when Mattis adds: “And we will correct this as soon as possible.” After “correct this,” Mattis smirks. After “as soon as possible,” the sad look-away returns. Therein emerges reality. A smirk is a sign of contempt, of distrust and disrespect—in this case, I believe, Mattis disrespecting himself for his assertion that things will get better in Afghanistan. Mattis knows better. America doesn’t have control over what will happen. Between Afghan tribalism and corruption, and Pakistani self-interest, the Taliban can’t and won’t be effectively sidelined.

The situation in Greece is only better in that nobody is outright dying. Grinding poverty and loss of hope are more the issues of the day. The Greek debt crisis has now been going on since 2010. In fact, it began on the very day I was leaving Athens after speaking at a sales conference. At the airport, the newspaper headlines were blaring the Greek government’s first admission that the scope of the country’s EU debt (to German and French bankers, among others) vastly exceeded prior admissions.

I don’t deny that the Greek crisis has its tragic-comedic aspects.  Remember the 2012 quarterfinals match between Greece and Germany in the run-up to deciding that year’s European soccer champion? Prior to losing 4-1, Greece momentarily tied the score at 1-1. In response its fans unleashed the chant, “We’ll never pay you back,” taunting in particular the most notable German fan in attendance, chancellor Angela Merkel.

But buried within the EU/Greek dynamic, you’ll find the same emotional cocktail of sad misgivings, fear of exposure to risk, blind optimism, and abiding anger—as if the situation really can be brought under control—that is evident in Afghanistan. “Overall, I think this is a major step forward,” said Jeroen Dijsselbloem of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of the latest loans to Greece. The loans will supposedly “enable Greece to stand on its own feet again over the course of the next year,” he added.

Never mind that Greece’s economy has shrunk by nearly a fifth since 2010, that unemployment stands at nearly 25%, or that some of the Greek debt now has due dates stretching out to mid-century. Everything will be fine, of course. Egos and pocketbooks won’t allow for any other forecast. Loss aversion rules. At least as the saying goes, “throwing good money after bad,” isn’t as reprehensible as trying to apply that cliché to Afghanistan. In that case, we would all properly shudder at the notion that there have been “bad” lives lost, for which more good U.S. soldiers will now get thrown into the fray.