Students simulate White House war-room drama in class born of Ethics & War series

The president, surrounded by his Cabinet members and senior national security and foreign policy advisors, appears grim as he declares: “This is certainly the greatest crisis I’ve ever faced as a president.”

He has ordered the deployment of U.S. forces into Syrian territory to protect civilians and establish safe zones. His Cabinet must now determine whether to order a pre-emptive strike against Syrian troops on word from the CIA that the Bashar al-Assad regime appears ready to use chemical and biological weapons stored in underground bunkers east of Damascus.

After a military briefing by the commander of CENTCOM, the president cautions those assembled at the classified briefing: “Remember, history will judge us, in part, by how thoroughly we discuss all the options today.”

With imagined top-secret memorandums from the CIA and the White House – as well as the real-deal Obama Nuclear Posture Review – some 20 Stanford undergraduate and law students dressed in suits and armed with laptops and position papers spend three hours debating the merits of an attack on Syrian forces.

Scott Sagan, a political science professor and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), plays Obama in the class co-taught by Allen Weiner, director of the Center on International Conflict and Negotiation at the Law School.

The Ethics and Law of War class presents law and political science students with some of the political, legal and moral consequences of war. For their final simulation, they must stay in character, grill one another as policymakers and world leaders might do behind closed doors – and then defend their final decisions.

“Instead of simply learning abstract just-war theory or international law doctrine, the simulations encourage students to apply what they've learned to real problems,” says Weiner, once a legal adviser at the State Department. “This provides for much deeper awareness of the subject matter and richer appreciation of the nuances and complexities.

Scott Sagan as President Obama 


Ethics & War

The class grew out of Stanford’s hugely successful, two-year War & Ethics lecture series, which concluded last month. Philosophers, writers, journalists, historians, social scientists, human rights activists and policy makers came together several times a month to grapple with the complex ethical equations of war. Co-sponsored by a dozen centers and departments across campus, the series drew big names and big crowds.

Vietnam War veterans and award winning authors Tobias Wolff – a Stanford English professor – and Tim O’Brien told a sold-out audience that writing about war was both therapeutic and heartbreaking. O’Brien was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “The Things They Carried,” a harrowing string of stories about a platoon of American soldiers in Vietnam.

How do you write about war? “You do it sentence by sentence, line by line, character by character, even syllable by syllable,’ O’Brien told a mesmerized audience. “You dive into that wreck and try to salvage something.”

Journalist Sebastian Junger spoke at the screening of  “Restrepo,” his documentary about the Afghanistan War. Stanford students and faculty performed in George Packer’s play, “Betrayed,” which illuminated the U.S. abandonment of young Iraqi interpreters who risked their lives for Washington during the Iraq War. For the final event, Debra Satz, a philosophy professor and director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Sagan, and Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force general who now leads the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University, debated the future ethical challenges of war.

Sagan, an expert in nuclear policy and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction who worked at the Pentagon and was a consultant to the Secretary of Defense, said the lecture series enriched his students by forcing them to pay attention and question the moral and legal underpinnings of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I was stretched, intellectually, by this series,” he said. “It encouraged me to read and discuss both fiction and philosophy that raises the same ethical issues – from a very different perspective – that we analyze in political science.”

Back to class

Weiner, as stand-in for Vice President Joe Biden, tells those assembled they must consider that within 24 hours, 6,000 American troops will be in danger. The CIA has a “high degree of confidence” that Assad has ordered the removal of the chemical weapons from the underground bunkers and transport trucks have been spotted at the sights.

“As we head into an election cycle, the difficulties of the decision that we make today will be placed under even greater scrutiny,” Weiner says.

That decision will be to make one of these hard choices:

  • The U.S. military withdraws its troops and avoids a military confrontation, but risks further civilian deaths and the condemnation of Arab Spring allies;
  • Obama orders conventional airstrikes against Syrian troops, which could lead to thousands of inadvertent civilian casualties;
  • Washington takes extraordinary measures and uses nuclear weapons to destroy the underground storage bunkers for its weapons of mass destruction. This last option likely would eliminate any chance of Syrian troops using chemical weapons, but it would open a Pandora’s box for the Nobel Peace Prize president who has pledged to work toward a nuclear-free world.
         U.S. Army Col. Viet Luong as CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis

The students know Americans are weary of war after the WMD fiasco in Iraq and a decade-long war in Afghanistan, both of which have claimed countless lives and a trillion-plus in taxpayer dollars. Their decision – as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, among others – is weighted by the concern that Americans likely won’t re-elect a president who drags them into another costly warm, and by the fear that a successful president cannot let American troops be exposed to deadly chemical attacks.

The mock military briefing by Gen. James Mattis – played by visiting CISAC military fellow, U.S. Army Col. Viet Luong, himself a commander in Afghanistan – lays out the risks and probabilities of casualties under each scenario.

A student asks Luong which military option he would recommend.

The general prevaricates: “I’m a military guy; I tend to lean toward success and then I also consider civilian casualties. But I’m also very concerned about putting my soldiers at risk.”

Clinton, voiced by international policy student Micaela Hellman-Tincher, says she’s concerned about mission creep. “Consider the international implications of us entering into conflict,” she says.

The fake Samantha Power of the National Security Council, played by Ashley Rhoades, urges diplomatic measures and a stand-down from military conflict. “I’m not advocating in any way for inaction,” she says. “There are several diplomatic solutions. We ask that you give us 24 hours to be able to work on these diplomatic options and multilateral diplomacy.”

Such as what? Such as calling on Moscow to mediate or seeking a U.N. envoy.

The legal team from the law school lays out their arguments for why a preventive strike would be illegal under certain conventions; while a pre-emptive strike based on imminent and unavoidable threats of attack might be permissible.

Then Stanford law student Alex Weber – playing Avril Haines, legal advisor to the National Security Council – addresses the elephant in the room: the nuclear option.

“If you use a nuclear weapon, regardless of whether the Syrians use chemical weapons against our troops, you are, as Colin Powell said in the 1991 Gulf War, opening a Pandora’s Box, particularly because Syria has no nuclear weapon,” Weber says. “You are the nuclear nonproliferation president. There is a psychological button that you push that will prompt the media to take the ethical debate to new levels.”

In the end, consensus appears to be growing around an immediate preventive strike against the storage bunkers using conventional forces. The Cabinet knows this could lead to deaths on both sides, but allowing the Syrians to use chemical weapons could lead to even more.

“You can’t cut and run, Mr. President,” insists student Torry Castellano, playing White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew.

Obama says he will take their advice under advisement and all rise as he leaves the war room.


More photos of the student simulation are available at CISAC's Facebook page.