Use gaming to hone foreign policy

Political gaming helped experts in the cold war. Why wasn't it used by top leaders before the Iraq war?

President Bush doesn't want to believe Iraq is like Vietnam, and in an unintended way he's right. A better analogy is the US- organized Bay of Pigs attack in 1961. That was a classic case of a president being misled by inexperience and bad advice into backing an ill-conceived invasion of Cuba. US-trained attacking forces were supposed to be greeted with flowers, but it turned into a fiasco when they were overwhelmed by the Cubans.

Afterward, President Kennedy said two remarkable things. "I will never again trust the experts" and "the policy was wrong because its underlying premises were faulty."

Experts, of course, are indispensable, and more expertise within Mr. Bush's inner circle in 2003 might have provided needed clearheadedness about the perils of occupying Iraq. But Kennedy also pointed to a common flaw of foreign policymaking: We don't often test our premises or understand how the other side is likely to react.

There's no easy fix, but Washington would be wise to make more use of one promising technique: "political gaming." Like war gaming, it uses dynamic role-playing to simulate and test scenarios. But political gaming replicates the policy process, not the battlefield. By helping its participants ask "What if?" and "What then?" without worrying about rank or consensus, a good political game can evaluate the integrity of premises – or reveal their flaws. At times, it can accurately anticipate reactions. A few real-life examples suggest the potential.

By the early 1970s, communist Yugoslavia had distanced itself sufficiently from Moscow to create a premise that NATO might come to its aid if the Soviets attacked. In a political-military game in Germany run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and played by US ambassadors and four-star officers, (and which I directed), the unexpected outcome was not to intervene.

A game I directed in Moscow amid the cold war showed gaming's potential, regardless of nationality or ideology. Soviet experts role-playing Americans ended up with a moderate, peace-seeking US Middle East policy at odds with Kremlin assumptions of aggressive US intentions.

A State Department game I helped run in the early 1990s projected negotiations between North and South Korea, which some then considered feasible. But the game indicated poor prospects for a meeting of minds between booming South Korea and the sullen communist state to the north – an outcome that is still the reality. But a game simulating black-white negotiations in South Africa, then officially doubted, achieved a positive outcome that also anticipated reality.

Careful preparation and skilled, mature players are essential for a successful game with meaningful results.

Sadly, American foreign-policy history is punctuated by flawed premises. Before Pearl Harbor, Americans assumed that the Japanese wouldn't dare attack. They did. Before Gen. Douglas MacArthur's disastrous 1950 charge toward the Yalu River, he assumed the same about the Chinese. They massively intervened. In the 1960s, a president worried about a regional-wide domino effect if South Vietnam fell. No dominos fell.

The same was true in the run-up to the Iraq war. Who among Washington's final deciders was thinking about the difficulties of managing a large, broken country? How many focused on Sunni contempt for Shiites who would become the democratic rulers? Who remembered that as recently as 1921, three Ottoman provinces were cobbled together in London and called Iraq? Instead, the 2003 premise was that Iraqis would greet American forces as liberators and sit still while they taught them political science.

Six months before the invasion, a State Department political game employing more than 30 experts came out with postcombat needs for more troops and allies, preservation of the Iraqi army, and priority for quick results in security and electric power generation. The findings weren't absorbed by the inner circle because they ran counter to the presidential mind-set.

Political games are typically run at the working level, and are virtually unknown at the White House and cabinet level. If not this president, then the next one will need to fix a flawed decisionmaking system. Running top-level, premise-testing planning games would be a modest start. Presidents can't role-play themselves without risking damaging leaks. But how about White House games with deputies role-playing their chiefs, opposite the country's best experts in a setting free of intimidation? A new disaster might be averted if greater rationality and expertise can break through the present bureaucratic ceiling to the place where critical choices are actually made.

Lincoln P. Bloomfield, emeritus professor of political science at MIT, has served with the Navy, State Department, and National Security Council. His latest book is "Accidental Encounters with History (and some lessons learned)."

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