In Simulation, Kennedy Students Face Tough Choices

Alexander L. Jaffe

Harvard Kennedy School students and faculty participate in a national security crisis simulation Saturday in the Belfer Center. Each participant played the role of a Cabinet member or adviser as the group worked together to resolve a modern day crisis with Iran over possible nuclear test sites.

Twenty Kennedy School students participated in an international crisis simulation Saturday morning, and were faced with the question of bombing Iran. Throughout the two-hour simulation, students received updates in letters, briefings, and video clips, and even participated in a simulated videoconference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At 9:30 a.m., each team of 10 students received satellite photographs suggesting that Iran had built a nuclear test site. When Iran shot down a US drone that had been sent to gather further evidence, Israel and Congress began asking questions. Then details were leaked to the press, and the issue became political given the nearing presidential election.

Elaine C. Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, played the U.S. president and visited each team four times during the simulation. At the end of the event, she sat at the head of the table, listening to final recommendations from each student.

After the simulation, Matthew Bunn, a professor of public policy, debriefed the students. Participants said they enjoyed the high-pressure simulation, which was planned by several students who wanted to give their classmates an opportunity to learn about international crisis management outside of a traditional classroom setting.

“I really liked being put into a time-pressure situation, being forced to analyze information very quickly, make decisions, and work in a high-pressure environment,” said Samuel D. Ward, a Kennedy School student who played the role of Secretary of Defense.


Furthermore, the simulation provided a learning opportunity not available in the classroom, added Richard J. Witt, another student. “Instead of just talking about decision making, you have to make a decision, and I think it makes a difference,” Witt said.

Leon Ratz, the student who headed planning for the simulation, also noted the unique nature of this learning opportunity. “The one thing we really wanted to see happen is people learn something about national security decision making,” he said. “And I think you can’t really get that out of a textbook. You might not be able to get that out of a class.”

Ratz also noted that demand for the event was very high. He said that 140 students applied for only 20 positions.The simulation was held in commemoration of the Cuban missile crisis, which took place 50 years ago this month. On November 1, participants will meet with Dan H. Fenn '44, an executive education instructor who served as an advisor to President John F. Kennedy '40.

—Staff writer Henry A. Shull can be reached at


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