Several people have asked me recently about the U.S. finally withdrawing from Afghanistan. We should all be glad that the war is at an end, but we also want to avoid previous mistakes when premature withdrawal led to resurgence of violence in countries we once protected. Our enemies understand that, given the short memory and forbearance of the U.S. population, they often only have to wait long enough, and we will eventually grow tired of our commitments and retreat. This raises an important principle in all things in life, whether politics, family, or faith – you have to play the long game to be successful.
There is wide dispute about the origin of this curious phrase. Some have said it originated with football, with waiting patiently for the long touchdown pass instead of the short screen. Others liken it to golf, with going for the long drive instead of short chips. Others have traced it to the British card game of whist, where it is possible to play a longer version of the game and defeat someone with a winning hand over time. Whatever its origins, the phrase now means to play a long-term strategy instead of focusing on the short-term tactical gain or problem. It is a phrase that, despite being overworn, perfectly describes the approach least often taken by most Americans.
From a political and military standpoint, it has been used to describe a diplomatic strategy that seeks to wait out those who are seeking short-term gains. The anger of the American public about 9-11 has cooled the past few years, and our leaders have been demanding exit from Afghanistan. This is the reason why we are leaving; not just because of a lack of support from the current government. Meanwhile, our enemies recognized that this would be the reaction of most Americans and have largely delayed major battles in favor of inflicting brief painful losses. Instead, they plan to resume the war once we leave. We always seem to play the short game, and our enemies always seem to play the long game. We find a similar situation with politics. While voters demand immediate results and vote out political leaders who do not achieve them, some political parties are able to focus their efforts on incremental moves until they have the power to make sweeping changes. Only after the fact do most voters realize what is going on, but they soon forget if the results do not impact them directly.
We find the same principle at work in other areas of life. In families, some parents coast most of the time and then react only when there is a family crisis – school failures, drugs, pregnancies, or similar problems. Other parents adjust family dynamics based on their children’s long-term needs by focusing on improving grades ahead of time, involving children in activities to avoid bad influences, and providing a moral foundation. In other words, they get ahead of the looming crisis. They play the long game by thinking two or three moves ahead of where their children will be. The same is also true in faith. Some people lurch from one crisis to another, falling, repenting, living a life of faith, then falling again. Others sense when they begin to go off track and make adjustments to their prayer life or church attendance before their attitude gets completely out of whack. One is focused on the short game, the other on the long game. It’s always the long game that is successful.
Some people say that we should make adjustments to our plan based on the short game. The American people will always be short-sighted. Teenagers will always get in trouble. We’re all human and fall into sin. This is an open admission they are not trying to play the long game. It has not always been so. After World War II, our leaders persuaded the American public to accept long-term occupation of Europe. Many families are successful in avoiding teenage angst. Many people of faith, while not perfect, avoid life- and marriage-destroying mistakes. They play the long game, and so can you.
© 2021 J.D. Manders