"Will Iran Be Next?"
The cover story of the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly is entitled, “Will Iran Be Next? A Pentagon-Style War Game Shows Why Military Strikes Would Invite Disaster.” A better subtitle would be: “A TV News-Style Roundtable Discussion Shows Why Policy Isn’t Made in One Three-Hour Sitting.” James Fallows’ article describes a forum of policy wonks and former officials, sponsored by the Atlantic, who are seated in a room one morning, given few instructions on how to decide anything, and then recorded by videotape to ensure their egos can do the talking for them. The incoherent results are reprehensibly passed off as a mirror of “the most plausible, current, non-classified information.” (One very alert reader insists that this article is a CIA plant to throw the mullahs off. If only that were so!) The forum is that of a meeting of the Principals Committee, the most senior national security officials of the “next administration.” Here is mistake number one: by trying to include both Democratic and Republican viewpoints in their committee, the Atlantic has seriously watered down the decisions of a group comprised solely of either party’s officials. Waiting until the election results were clear would have made for a much more realistic forum to discuss the Iran dilemma. The next mistake is the assumption that Iran would defy the deadline set by the IAEA for satisfying its demands. This is no doubt a result of the vagaries of journalistic deadlines, but aside from the fact that this assumption has proven wrong (link), it ignores the possibility that Iran will both agree to IAEA demands and continue with its weapons program clandestinely – which is entirely possible and would require a wholly different set of considerations. The purpose of the war game is to “force attention on the three or four main issues the next President will have to face about Iran . . .” and this is rightly how to define the deliberations and product of a Principals Committee meeting. But the wargame unduly focuses their discussion on the use of force. Diplomacy, economic sanctions, CIA covert operations, are all left out of the discussion, though one must assume that a meeting of the Principals Committee is where the combined application of these other elements of national power would most likely be weighed and counterbalanced against each other. The limitations that this imposes will soon be clear. The participants in the wargame were: Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force Colonel, with many years of experience in developing wargame and other simulation exercises, this time posing as National Security Advisor. David Kay, the former US weapons inspector, played the role of Director of Central Intelligence. Two different individuals play Secretary of State, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the CIA, meant to be the conservative, and Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, meant to be the liberal. Kenneth Bacon, a former Clinton administration official, played the White House Chief of Staff, and Michael Mazarr, a professor of national-security strategy at the National ar College, was the Secretary of Defense. In addition to these participants, there were three observers: Harvard University’s Graham Allison, Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, and Army Major Donald Vandergriff, the three of whom are known for their expertise or innovative thinking in defense-related decision-making. Being only observers, they can be let off the hook for the results. So what happens when several once and future wonks gather to debate policy while being videotaped? As Steinbeck once wrote, it was "as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its result." In short, the "war game" had significant problems. Aside from the fundamental limitations above, the "game" suffered from no clear mechanism for detailed planning. There was no brainstorming session, no attempt to weigh one idea against another. Instead, a free-for-all took place. Consider for example: -The roleplaying nature of the game was "loose": "Sometimes the participants expressed their institutions' views; other times they stepped out of role and spoke for themselves." How is it possible for them to express institutional views when those institutions -- the State Department and the CIA for example -- are undergoing significant post-election upheaval? Is it not off the mark to say that the institutions whose views they were expected to express don't know what their views are yet? -The most critical of their product are the gamers themselves, noting for example, the lack of a red cell to figure out the options of the Iranians. Notes Fallows: "'Process' sounds dull, and even worse is 'government decision-making,' but these topics provoked the most impassioned comments from panelists and observers when they were interviewed after the war game." How ironic when they had no process to speak of themselves! Perhaps mirroring an actual military war game,but without the actual troop movements, would be a better way to untie this knot. Let us wade through the gobbledy-gook in this article and see what we can find. The assumptions of the planners/gamers: 1. All of our information leads us to believe that Iran will have nuclear weapons capabilities within three years. This information may not be everything though, and there could be factors we have no idea about that will speed the process. 2. There are two wild-card factors: Iran's involvement in Iraq and Israel's potential involvement with Iran. Using these two assumptions as starting points, the panel then proceeds to veto nearly every possible tool to affect the Iranian weapons program: An Israeli strike? The Israelis know they don't have the capability for that! They would have to hit every missile in addition to all the nuke sites! They won't risk a counterattack with chemical weapons! We should tell them to pipe down! Iran's influence on current US actions in Iraq? The Iranians can make it very difficult for us there if they want! The Iranians might provoke every Shi'ite to rise against us! It could get bloody! They then consider three military courses of action (COA) for the US to take against Iran: 1. "A punitive raid against key Revolutionary Guard units, to retaliate for Iranian actions elsewhere, most likely in Iraq." This is a truly baffling option. Weren't we discussing the Iranian nuclear program? How does attacking the Iranian military affect the development of Iran's nuclear weapons, except to force them to speed it up as much as possible? And what Iranian actions are we retaliating against? Do we already possess evidence of these actions? The inclusion of this option is inexplicable, unless one remembers that when planners are forced to come up with three options, one of them is usually called the "throwaway COA." 2. "A pre-emptive air strike on possible nuclear facilities;" Much more like it. Now we are talking. 3. "A 'regime change' operation involving the forcible removal of the mullahs government in Tehran." Certainly appears to be an option, though appearances can be deceiving. The panel then begins to pick apart each and every one of these three options. Their over-riding goal throughout this exercise is to eschew any and all risk. Striking the Iranian military? This is supposed to be a measured response to Iranian meddling in Iraq, "and a first step in laying the groundwork for the ultimate step of regime change." Here we see that this first option is nothing more than option three light. It cannot really be undertaken unless the US is willing to go all the way in removing the regime. The pre-emptive air strike? The US would attack 300 different sites involved in the development of nukes, chem or bio weapons, all in a matter of five days. An invasion of Iran? Meant to change the regime? Here the panel gets bogged down in details -- where will the feints be? What airfields will the invasion force use? Will it be light, with few divisions and lots of special forces? Or heavy, with many divisions and lots of special forces? Then, the panel mentions that the invading forces will avoid any stability operations. This is fascinating. Why would the panel assume that a US force would avoid stability operations, given our recent experience in Iraq? Fallows asks this of Gardiner: "How could the military dare suggest such a plan after the disastrous consequences of ignoring 'stability' responsibilities in Iraq? Even now, Gardiner said after the war game, the military sees post-conflict operations as peripheral to its duties. If these jobs need to be done, someone else must take responsibility for them." This is nothing short of alarming. First, the post-invasion instability in Iraq was not the fault of the US military. The fault for the lack of planning rests with poor interagency coordination. Stabilty operations must have an overt political goal -- in this case, establishing a government -- and while the removal of Saddam's regime was a rousing success, the quick and efficient installation of the next regimes -- the CPA and the Interim Government -- were a failure. Military planners are not to blame for this inaction -- civilian planners are. In fact, US military units, who were living in Iraq, and had quite a stake in not seeing instability, are to be commended for adapting to the situation and preventing further instability than occurred. Second, the idea that the military see post-conflict operations as peripheral to its duties is flat-out wrong. Marines for example, have been training for and conducting Miliary Operations Other than War or MOOTW -- what could also be called Small Wars -- for the better part of a century. And the military has moved to make postwar planning a priority in future conflicts as well. More about this fictional invasion of Iran: "Our objective is to be on the outskirts of Tehran in two weeks. The notion is we will not have a Battle of Tehran; we don't want to do that. We want to have a battle around the city. We want to bring our combat-power to the vicinity of Tehran and use Special Operations inside the capital. We have no intention of getting bogged down in stability operations in Iran afterwards." In other words, the war plan is a reproduction of the plan for the invasion of Iraq, but without the guts to take a city. And rather than admit the US did poorly in post-conflict planning in Iraq, and then try to improve on that, the plan avoids all post-conflict involvement whatsoever. This is a dangerous plan and the panel recognizes this and rejects it. Sitting on the outskirts of the capital and waiting for a miracle to occur and a regime to evaporate -- especially a totalitarian one -- is not a recipe for success. The article goes downhill from there, ending with these words: "After all of this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers," Sam Gardiner said of his exercise. "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work." Perhaps Mr. Fallows and his posse have no solutions, but The Adventures of Chester does. Before that though, let us examine some of the panel's assumptions which were not as obvious: 1. Any military action will reflect current thinking within the Pentagon. 2. The only way to stimulate a regime change is through military force. 3. The military has no stomach for stability operations (this one was obvious). 4. The buildup to an invasion cannot be disguised. 5. The US military is too overstretched for an invasion of Iran at this point in time. 6. If a pre-emptive strike only succeeded in delaying the Iranian program, they would sooner or later have weapons after all. Tomorrow, The Adventures of Chester will address each of these assumptions and offer an alternative analysis and course of action. As the week progresses, we'll examine each part of this alternative one bit at a time. Also later this week: China and Taiwan? Headed for disaster?