Mattis's long experience as a combat commander may have taught him to err on the side of pessimism when formulating military plans. In this case, that pessimism would imply having U.S. forces in the Gulf assume Iranian missiles will soon be on their way following an Israeli first strike. If that is the case, have U.S. commanders done all they can to prepare their forces for Iranian action? And have U.S. policymakers done all they could to deter Iran's decision-makers from striking in the first place?
On March 16, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, briefed defense reporters on what the Navy is doing to increase its readiness in the Persian Gulf. Greenert is sending additional minesweeping and patrol craft to the Gulf and will add more short-range defensive weapons to Navy vessels operating there, in response to Iranian small boat "swarming" tactics. Greenert expects most of these capabilities to be in place "within a year." This seems a bit tardy, given Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's forecast of an Israeli strike in "April, May or June," and a major Pentagon war game from 2002 that showed the effectiveness of the Iranian small boat swarming threat.
U.S. leaders could likewise do more to deter Iran's decision-makers in an effort to avert the dire Internal Look scenario. In a recent discussion of possible Iranian behavior, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that a U.S. conflict with Iran could occur not because of Iranian irrationality but more from "gross misjudgment." Dempsey pointed to the disastrous assessments made by an otherwise rational Saddam Hussein, who serially misjudged U.S. will and intentions. U.S. officials could help Iran's decision-makers avoid similar mistakes by rapidly reinforcing U.S. air and naval forces in the region, conducting useful and visible training exercises once the reinforcements have arrived, and by clearly stating to Iran's leaders the consequences of Iranian action against U.S. forces and interests. In January, Panetta expressed confidence in the level of U.S. military forces already present in the region. But if, as Dempsey believes, Iran's leaders are rational, yet Mattis's planners still believe Iran will attack U.S. forces, either Panetta is wrong, U.S. leaders haven't been clear with Iran, or both. And that says nothing good about U.S. preparations regarding Iran.
Finally, why did U.S. officials leak the results of Internal Look to the New York Times? If it's a memo aimed at Israeli policymakers to complain about their saber-rattling, the message is unlikely to get through. U.S. and Israeli officials at all levels have thoroughly discussed the Iran issue and have clearly formulated different assumptions. Repeating the message will hardly help at this point. U.S. military officials may have leaked the story in order to make the case for a military build-up in the region. But they would only need to make such a case in the New York Times if the White House had for some reason refused such a request.
Finally, Mattis and others may have revealed the war game's pessimistic conclusions in order to prepare the U.S. public for the increasing likelihood of another war and for the casualties that could result. If that is the case, political leaders should have an honest and open discussion with the public, instead of sending a murky message through anonymous leaks to the New York Times.