Early this month, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted the folly of military action against Iran to prevent its nuclear ambitions. Speaking in Virginia, he said, "The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world."
Yet many in Washington believe that military action is not only a potential option, but the desirable option. The Truman National Security Project has launched an online war game called Tell Me How This Ends, which allows players to assume the role of a president who has committed to war with Iran. It demonstrates why Gates is right, why those who would argue for preemptive military action (at this time) are wrong, and why the current policies of Barack Obama's administration are navigating through an incredibly complex and dynamic landscape of political, military, and diplomatic situations.
The scenario is laid out upfront: You are the president, and you are at a decision point. U.S. intelligence has indicated that the Iranians have crossed the 20 percent enrichment "red line." In other words, you're in the region that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed in his crude illustration of the pathway to an atomic bomb during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September. The catch is, however, that there may yet still be time to dissuade the Iranians from weaponizing their assets. Indeed, in your advisors' view, it would still be months or years before the Iranians could build a weapon, and much longer before it could properly be mated with a delivery system such as a ballistic missile. The scenario does not -- for instructive purposes -- permit you to sit and wait. You must decide: Do you strike preemptively, or do you build a coalition before engaging in military action against Iran?
What follows is a well-thought-out explanation of the political tensions and military realities of preemptive strikes, walking the deterrence tightrope, and executing a range of less aggressive to more aggressive responses and counter-responses. For example, at one point you are provided advice from your secretary of state reminding you of the importance of coalitions. Your national security advisor notes that a coalition probably won't really provide much military benefit, and your politically savvy chief of staff observes that you might not want to delay in order to build a coalition, as Americans may think you're putting "America's security to a vote at the U.N."
Being able to rewrite and replay history (on my iPad, no less), I played the scenario several times, each time selecting different options and pathways -- a "Choose Your Own Adventure" for policy wonks, if you will.
I acted preemptively at times, cautiously at others, but in each I was faced with the challenge of escalating violence and a wider conflict. I found the Iranians reacting as they likely would in the real world and at times offering up a clumsy or unexpected response, reducing the effectiveness of my counters. As military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted so adeptly, "In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect."