[ by Charles Cameron — board game and board-room simulation of an Israeli strike on Iran ]
We suppose we can game the world.
It may in fact be the best thing we can do, or the only thing: we guess, guesstimate, estimate the possible outcomes of an act or series of acts — and somehow in there, we hope to match the major trends in the complexity we seek to understand with selected complexities of our own that we build into our games.
And yet as Richard Danzig noted in the opening paragraph of his Driving in the Dark: Ten Propositions About Prediction and National Security which I quoted here yesterday, “whereas routine, short-term predictions are generally right, strategic judgments about future environments are often, one might say predictably, wrong.”
So we have knee-jerk responses, which can suitably be expressed in barks or sound-bites, and we have deliberative inquiry, which requires suitably nuanced exegesis. And our games and simulations are attempts at the deliberative approach.
The chess board:
So the question of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is once again in the air, and we would like to be able to peer as far down the chess-board as a Kasparov, computing the counter-move an adversary would make against a friend’s counter-move to the adversaries response to an initial move. Sadly, though, we all too often find ourselves in the bind that a senior US official in Iraq described to Anthony Cordesman a while back, where our best efforts at gaming the situation are “like playing three dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you.”
Except that my own version of the board may be more accurate:
it’s more like an n-dimensional spider’s web, with multiple gravities, tugs, and tensions – and some of those tensions are in the category of known unknowns that one of your predecessors talked about, some of them unknown unknowns, and some of them literally unknowable – hidden in the hearts of more devious men than you, and known only to God.
So, anyway, we game things out as best we can.
And since the idea of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities has been in the news of late, so have two attempts to “game” that particular possibility and its sequelae.
What interests me here is not the outcomes envisioned – but the inherent differences between the two games. Let’s take a look.
Persian Incursion is basically two games in one. There is a highly detailed military game of a seven-day Israeli air offensive in which Israel plans and executes its strikes while the Iranian air defenses try to stop them. But there is also a political game that unlocks the military aspect. Persian Incursion assumes that an Israeli attack is only possible if one of Iran’s neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or a U.S.-influenced Iraq — either publicly or tacitly allows Israeli entry into its airspace for the strike on Iran. (The rules state that though Israel could chance an initial airstrike without an agreement, it would need permission for follow-up attacks.) With that in mind, the game comes with various starting scenarios, such as a super-radical Iran that scares its neighbors into allowing Israeli access, or Turkish support for an Israeli strike (note that the game came out in 2010, before the current Israeli-Turkish spat).
Here’s how Clash of Arms, the publisher, describes the game packet:
Persian Incursion provides comprehensive and detailed information on:
• Orders of battle for the Israeli and Iranian Air Forces and the Iranian Air Defense Force
• Analysis of the Iranian nuclear and oil infrastructure
• Iranian ballistic missiles and Israeli ballistic missile defenses
• Target folders for Iranian nuclear facilities, oil terminals and refineries, and airfields
• Variable starting conditions
• Rulebook; Briefing Package and Target folders;
• 17 x 22″ Full color map;
• Short Deck of “Super Cards” (4.25 x 6″);
• 2 Full decks of playing cards (110 cards);
• Cardboard counters;
• Box and dice.
Now I am absolutely not the guy you want to ask about the game-play, or about the game’s possible implications for policy analysis. Michael Peck may well be that guy, but even he doesn’t leave the game with a clear sense of how things might play out in real time:
The real question of this exercise, however, is whether an Israeli strike on Iran is a good or bad idea. Persian Incursion’s answer is an unqualified “maybe.” Israel can’t stop Iran from retaliating with missile attacks and terrorism. But it also can’t guarantee complete destruction of Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps most importantly, the key to victory is winning the public-opinion, political war.
And when you get granular, “public opinion” turns out to mean the interwoven opinions of many, many and diverse people — some influential, some easily influenced, some whose world-view features a rigorous scientism, some a potentially wrathful deity – all of whom are themselves beset by a myriad of doubts, certainties, hopes, fears, bouts of toothache and who knows what else…
Modeling even one of those minds (and associated hearts) would be quite a trick…
So. That’s the “reference library” approach, to use Peck’s term:
Persian Incursion isn’t a novel — it’s a reference library inside a game. The background information included is staggering. Besides the rules book, there is a target folder and a briefing booklet listing the precise dimensions of Iranian nuclear facilities down to the meter…
The gamer has what we’ll assume is a highly accurate representation of the materiel side of things. Morale, at the granular level of a Netanyahu or a Khamenei?
Who can game the workings of a single human mind (and heart)?
[continued in Pt 2]