April 11, 2006

Plans of mice and men

So by now everyone has hopefully heard of Sy Hersh's article in the New Yorker regarding Pentagon planning for strikes against Iran. In particular, Sy talks about the Pentagon contingency plans that involved a tactical nuclear first strike against Iranian targets. Sy makes the claim that when the Pentagon attempted to "walk back" (jargon for withdraw) those specific contingencies that used nukes, they were denied the opportunity.

Think what you want about Sy, but he's still probably the single most capable and respected US investigative journalist. When he writes these things, he's usually right. He was right about Abu Ghraib. He was right about the run-up to Iraq. And now, almost predictably, we're seeing confirmations of the story start to slip out.

Let me explain how this works.

In the first place, there's contingency planning. There are contingency plans for everything you could possibly think of, from full-blown invasion to targeted strikes to information operations. There are whole specialties devoted to supporting this kind of planning capability. And most of these plans are shelved and only taken down and dusted off when they need updating or someone has a new idea. It wouldn't surprise me to find that there are contingency plans for an invasion of Great Britain. Some are simply thought exercises; "What would you do if...," while some are more detailed. Contingency plans involving potential adversaries--like Iran--are more detailed and updated more often.

It's when you move to the operational planning stage that you need to be concerned. Operational planning takes those contingency plans, evaluates them, dumps the infeasible ones, and starts hanging flesh on the bones of the remainder.

Sy is basically claiming that striking Iran has moved from contingency planning to operational planning.

Now, operational planning in and of itself does not mean that we're going to war. It does mean that someone in the chain--usually high up; SecDef or higher--wants to see some serious options for the use of force. That's a sign of a building crisis, but not inevitable sign of coming conflict.

However, operational planning does entail spending money. The longer it goes on and the more detailed it gets (usually narrowing in on a small set of plans in the process) the faster the money gets spent. It doesn't take too long before it becomes a significant sum.

That's where you have to realize that money has its own momentum. Once you start spending, it's hard to shut it off. In fact, it costs money to shut off the spending, odd as that may sound. There's a tipping point beyond which it will simply cost less to follow through than to cancel. That point is difficult to predict.

And when your contingency plans include a nuclear first strike that has been explicitly ruled as being on the table, you have to start wondering--when will we pass it?

Posted by cerebus at April 11, 2006 9:23 PM