Monday, June 28, 2010

The Flight Forward, Afghanistan and the New York Knicks

The Afghanistan war and the New York Knicks are surprisingly similar: they’re both suffering from the flight forward syndrome. The flight forward describes a situation in which an actor is committed to a course of action, discovers that that course of action is difficult and success is improbable, and then recommits to the course of action all the more intensely. Typically a phrase like “failure is not an option” is invoked when, in fact, failure is always an option—the question is its relative benefits versus committing strongly. But declaring that “failure is not an option” or variants typically serves as a method of closing one’s mind to other possibilities.

Take Ross Douthat’s column on Afghanistan today. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s being descriptive rather than prescriptive, but here’s the first two paragraphs:
Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.

Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.
Which is probably true insofar as the description goes. But it’s worth asking, if all you do is failure, is the problem the execution or the strategy itself? Obviously it’s too early to say for certain, but it seems to be heading in that direction. One of the regrets I have over the Rolling Stone controversy was over the war debate. McChrystal’s comments were the perfect controversy: simple, easy to understand, reducible to sound bites. And he should’ve been fired. The totality of the article, however, is really about why the war is essentially unwinnable. But because failure is unthinkable, it makes failure all but inevitable. And when that failure comes, it’ll be all the worse. Something approximating success will not be as sweet as was imagined at the beginning of the endeavor.

Consider this idea within the context of the other example I promised at the beginning: namely, the New York Knicks. It’s been clear ever since Donnie Walsh was hired that the Knicks’ strategy revolved around signing LeBron James. This was a more effective strategy when the Knicks were the only game in town; but the Bulls and Heat quickly began to reorganize their rosters in order to prove more attractive destinations than the Knicks. So what did the Knicks do? Failure was unimaginable—it would have meant the waste of three years of rebuilding and millions of dollars wasted. But success, too, was destined to be a poisoned chalice: the Knicks had to trade Jordan Hill to the Rockets along with the rights to several high picks to the Rockets in order to clear the requisite cap space. Now what? Success won’t be any utopia: a LeBron/Bosh top two is formidable, but who else on that team looks like a championship caliber player? Maybe Danilo Gallinari. Maybe. And because the team would be too good to have good draft picks, there would be no hope for improving the team through the draft. The Knicks would be dependent on another stroke of good luck—e.g. a Pau Gasol type trade, or making several successful midlevel exception signings in a row—to even think about contending for a championship. Meanwhile, the flight forward represented by the trade devastates a future in which top-tier free agents don’t choose the Knicks: suddenly the Rockets have raided you for top-5 picks two years in a row. It would take five years at least to rebuild the team after that, with luck. Walsh has bet the entire future on a not particularly appealing future.

These are the types of things that happen when you commit to a bad strategy so completely. The strategies pursued above allow no room for flexibility—the Knicks could no more decide to build through the draft than a pig decide to fly—meaning that any change in circumstances is bound to ruin said strategy. And, more importantly, the mental commitment of “failure is not an option” means that the actor in question cannot conceive of the time that it’s important to concede gracefully. Sometimes failure happens.

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