“Tell Me How This Ends” and the Jus ad Bellum

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have been having an interesting twitter exchange with Ben Wittes about an online “Choose Your Own Adventure” game created by the Truman National Security Project.  The game, which is entitled “Tell Me How This Ends,” asks you to decide how the President of the United States should respond to news that Iran has accumulated enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon.  I described the game as “appalling” on twitter, pointing out that the game gives you only two choices: a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, or a multilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.  In other words, the game requires the use of military force; additional diplomacy, much less justified skepticism about Iran’s intentions, is not an option.

Ben rightly responded that the game is trying to make a progressive point: that the use of force against Iran is likely to have significant negative consequences. In that respect, the game deserves credit.  But I still have a problem with the fact that the game requires the player to launch an attack that blatantly violates the jus ad bellum.  Here is how the game frames the scenario (emphasis added):

“During the campaign, you promised to establish a red line: If Iran accumulated enough medium-enriched uranium—that’s 20% enrichment—for a single nuclear bomb, the United States would retaliate militarily.

Intelligence now indicates that your red line has been crossed.”

The word “retaliate” is misleading, for an obvious reason: Iran has not attacked the U.S. or anyone else in the scenario.  Indeed, Iran has not even threatened to attack the U.S. or anyone else in the scenario.  The President’s attack, therefore, is pre-emptive, not retaliatory.

That misdescription is bad enough.  Worse still, the game requires the player to launch a pre-emptive military attack against Iran even though the scenario openly acknowledges that Iran has not yet decided to build a nuclear weapon and would need at least three years to actually build one:

Given Iran’s current capabilities, reasonable estimates suggest that if Iran’s leaders decided to build a nuclear weapon, it would take them at least a year to build, and would take two more years to create a warhead that could deliver the nuclear weapon via a missile to foreign countries.

Well intentioned or not, then, the game validates a profoundly reactionary understanding of the right of self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter.  Attacking a state that has enriched uranium but has not decided to build a nuclear weapon and would need years to actually build one is not self-defense.  It is an act of aggression.

http://opiniojuris.org/2012/11/14/tell-me-how-this-ends-and-the-jus-ad-bellum/

One Response

  1. But what happens when you do play the game? Maybe:

    a. if you launch a unilateral strike, you get condemned on the world stage, but

    b.  if you launch a multilateral strike, a blog post appears on (the game version of) OpinioJuris to discuss whether enough States where part of the multiparty attack to evidence a changing interpretation of article 51 UN Charter.

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