National Security

Choose Your Own Adventure for Policy Wonks

Gaming out a military strike on Iran.

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."

In other words, if there is one thing certain about war, it is uncertainty. Tell Me How This Ends reminds us that, even with the best understanding of an enemy's capabilities, intentions, and effectiveness, we may not know what is going on until events start to unfold. And, even if we guess right about its intentions, the enemy may come to seemingly illogical conclusions or be hampered by negligence, hastiness, disobedience, laziness, or pure exhaustion -- the human factor in war.

In the several scenarios I played, I noted some important similarities. Despite various approaches, I could do little to prevent or counter Iranian attacks on commercial shipping and the subsequent spike of oil prices to $100 -- and, in one less successful attempt, $200 -- per barrel. Likewise, gas prices skyrocketed to $6 and $7 a gallon. This sort of economic shock would be devastating to a U.S. economy that has begun to recover after a horrible recession.

Of more importance, there was the inevitable loss of life associated with military action -- the death of troops inevitable due to "hit-and-run" tactics by Iranian small boats against both commercial and coalition military vessels. Likewise, terrorist attacks, sponsored by the Iranians and perhaps Hezbollah surrogates, increased with each military move made by the United States. In some instances -- even when I chose to de-escalate -- these attacks were limited to Iraq, Israel, and the Persian Gulf region, but in others, the Iranians also increased the flow of advanced weaponry to insurgents in Afghanistan or supported terrorist actions against interests in Europe and the Americas. It was no surprise that the costs of this conflict with Iran began to skyrocket -- from $2 billion to $9 billion per month, depending on the level of U.S. military intervention.

In the end, Tell Me How This Ends illustrates the operational difficulties of enforcing naval blockades, launching airstrikes, and solving technical problems associated with destroying deeply buried targets. It shows that even a well-planned, accurately targeted, and proficiently executed strike against a broad set of Iranian nuclear targets will only postpone -- not halt -- the regime's program and will likely have a significant set of malicious side effects. As Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official for Middle East policy, has suggested, this is also the blind spot in current Israeli thinking about preemptive military action: It would "be nearly impossible to prevent Iran from rebuilding its program. Iran's nuclear infrastructure is much more advanced, dispersed and protected, and is less reliant on foreign supplies of key technology, than was the case with Iraq's program in 1981."

Gates's and Kahl's warnings provide the intellectual framework for the answers that Tell Me How This Ends provides: The only true military solution requires massive intervention. Lesser options would merely postpone Iran's nascent nuclear program. If war broke out in the real world, this option would result in thousands of U.S. troops (and perhaps coalition forces) killed and perhaps a wider war -- which is not in the interests of the United States, Israel, or the tens of thousands of people who would likely be killed in such a conflagration. While Iran cannot be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon, the United States must make some very deliberate choices and exhaust a range of diplomatic and intelligence options before undertaking what will -- despite its best efforts -- become a very costly war with Iran.

GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images

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