Simulation Exercise Teaches Policy Practices

Simulation Exercise Teaches Policy Practices

By Gil-li Vardi and Iris Malone

National Security Council Simulation Overview

A month after the White House released its National Security Strategy plan to address the growing threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), students of Political Science 114S, “International Security in a Changing World,” came together for a simulation of a National Security Council meeting to debate their own counterinsurgency strategies to extirpate ISIL. The teaching team designed this simulation to satisfy specific learning goals.

Simulation Learning Goals

In contrast to the full-scale simulation on Iranian nuclear negotiations that involved over 150 students, 22 country delegations, and a plethora of side-payment negotiations, each National Security Council meeting was comprised of 10-15 students and had two primary goals.

First, students had to work independently to devise and present their own policy recommendations to successfully combat ISIL. Second, students were encouraged to research and think creatively about how to construct an effective counterinsurgency strategy against ISIL in light of the difficulties presented by readings, lectures, and mock intelligence and military briefings in the days leading up to the simulation.

During the two-day simulation, students had to defend their policy positions to “President Obama” (an instructor or teaching assistant) who challenged the costs, feasibility, and impact such actions would have. The “President” encouraged students to consider not just how to win ISIL, but also the meaning and costs of “winning” (or failing to win): the validity of U.S. interests in the region, possible implications for various Middle East actors, as well as the “President’s” own domestic political career and America’s international reputation as a whole.

Simulation Results and Lessons

The National Security Council simulation provided a good exercise to help students understand the intricacies of crafting counterinsurgency policy and the difficulties inherent in operationalizing strategically ambiguous policy terminology to “degrade and defeat” an enemy. Instructors and teaching assistants encouraged students to debate each other about how to best serve the U.S. national interest.

We found, however, that we needed to better define our objectives for these discussions ahead of time. For example, do we want students to reach an agreement on the extent of U.S. involvement against ISIL? Should students debate the effect of their strategy on larger geopolitical problems in the Middle East? etc.

Also, we may need to develop better ways of assessing students’ prior knowledge about topics and issues related to our simulation yet outside the scope of the class, e.g. Middle Eastern politics, in order to better guide in-class discussion.

Nevertheless, we found that this smaller simulation presents a good template for students to engage with current events while applying taught theories and keeping past counterinsurgency campaigns in mind. The small discussion groups also allowed for necessary flexibility and rapid responses to real-life breaking news and developments that might have changed students’ calculations and suggested strategies.


Headshot, Gil-li VardiGil-li Vardi is a lecturer in the Graduate School of Business and the Department of History.



Headshot, Iris MaloneIris Malone is a Political Science graduate student and Head TA of Political Science 114S.




See Also

UN Simulation Exercise Teaches Real-World Skills : an account of the full-scale, two-day simulation in this same course

Syllabus for the course POLISCI 114: International Security in a Changing World