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Unrest in Bahrain

Political unrest in Bahrain, a major non-NATO U.S. ally, has escalated to violent protests resulting in several deaths.


In the small island country of Bahrain, government and security forces have clashed with protestors seeking democratic reform. The ruling al-Khalifa family has responded to these protests with force and mass arrests. There is a history of Sunni-Shia tension in Bahrain, but sectarianism is only one dimension of broader societal stresses related to disenfranchisement and limited economic opportunity for the country’s majority. The instability in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has far-reaching implications for the United States as it considers how to promote both its interests and its values.

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Unrest in Bahrain SMALL PROMO PHOTO

In the small island country of Bahrain, government and security forces have clashed with protestors seeking democratic reform. The ruling al-Khalifa family has responded to these protests with force and mass arrests. The most recent clashes between government forces and protestors are not the first but certainly the bloodiest. In February 2011, Bahraini activists, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, gathered in the capital to seek political reform. The fact that Bahrain’s leaders are part of the Sunni minority and the demonstrators represent the Shia majority gives the uprising a sectarian complexion, in addition to the broader social issues of disenfranchisement and limited economic opportunity. Activists’ demands have varied over recent years, but include a new constitution, a fully elected parliament with legislative powers, an end to attempts to change the country’s demographic balance by naturalizing non-Bahraini Sunnis, the release of protestors arrested in political crackdowns, freedom of expression and the press, and an independent judiciary. The U.S. government has decided to convene a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to consider whether and how to support political reform in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, without further destabilizing the country or compromising U.S. interests or values.





  • Free flow of energy resources in the Middle East
  • U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement
  • U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region
  • U.S. support for democratic governance
Guide Sections
An Introduction to the National Security Council
National Security Council meeting

“The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security...”

– Title I of the National Security Act of 1947

1.1 Overview

The United States plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining international order in an increasingly globalized world. The range of foreign policy issues that require its attention or involvement is vast: from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to tensions with North Korea and Iran; from long-standing alliances with European and Asian powers to complex, evolving relationships with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa; from the stability of global finance to the promotion of economic opportunity in low-income countries; and from climate to health to nuclear proliferation to terrorism. There is little around the world in which the United States does not have a vested interest. Further, issues such as immigration, trade, and cybersecurity underscore the fading distinction between domestic and international matters.

U.S. leaders use a range of tools to pursue a foreign policy that they believe will safeguard national security and achieve U.S. goals:

  • diplomatic, such as bilateral or multilateral consultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions at global and regional bodies such as the United Nations, and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture
  • economic, such as trade and investment agreements, tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S.-manufactured products, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology
  • military, such as missile strikes, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces
  • unconventional actions, sometimes secret, undertaken by the U.S. government and its proxies, such as training and assisting foreign intelligence services, supporting armed nonstate actors, private security contracting, and cyberwarfare

Effective policymaking requires a deft combination of these tools. To accomplish this, policymakers need to clearly define U.S. interests and gauge the interests, resources, and motivations of foreign governments and nonstate actors. The U.S. intelligence community helps policymakers in their work by collecting and analyzing a vast range of information, including satellite images, communications records, documents, data, and personal observations.

Foreign policy successes and failures are often associated with presidential decisions. Less explored is the decision-making system that helps the president make those critical choices and coordinate their implementation. This guide will help you understand the system through which the United States creates and implements its foreign policy.

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National Security Council meeting
CIA Director George Bush discusses the evacuation of Americans from Beirut

“....I envisioned a special role for the national security advisor, who is the manager of the National Security Council. I needed an honest broker who would objectively present to the president the views of the various cabinet officers across the spectrum.”

— George H.W. Bush, “A World Transformed,” p. 18

1.2 The Interagency Process

Whether it aims to respond to an immediate crisis or to advance a long-term objective, a successful foreign policy–making process starts with a clear articulation of interests and goals. Policymakers and their advisors then formulate policy options to meet those goals and consider each option’s strengths and weaknesses. This process is challenging in the best of times. Information may be unreliable or incomplete, an adversary’s intentions may be unclear, and a decision’s consequences may be unknowable. Leaders often have to choose from a list on which every option is imperfect. Adding to this uncertainty is the complexity of the U.S. government’s foreign policy machinery: numerous agencies—each with its own interests and biases—seek to influence how policy is decided and carried out. In these circumstances, it takes considerable effort to run a process capable of producing sound policy decisions.

The National Security Council (NSC) plays a critical role in this effort. Its mission is to help the president effectively use a variety of instruments—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—to forge policies that advance U.S. national security goals.

The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which defined it as an interagency body intended to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Following World War II, in an age of expanded American interests and responsibilities, the NSC was expected to provide a place where the heads of federal departments and agencies could cooperate to develop and recommend to the president policies that would advance U.S. aims. The NSC and its staff were also meant to manage the policymaking process so that the president would receive a full range of advice and opinion from the departments and agencies involved in national security.

The NSC has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the preferences of successive presidents and the challenges they faced. Variables such NSC meeting attendees, the frequency of meetings, the amount and format of information passed to the president, the importance of consensus, and the relative dominance of the NSC over other government institutions have changed over the decades.

During this time, the NSC has evolved to comprise various interagency committees and a large staff to prepare analysis and coordinate policymaking and implementation. The NSC is at the center of the interagency process, one through which relevant government agencies address foreign policy issues and help the president make and execute policy choices.

I. National Security Advisor

The national security advisor (formally assistant to the president for national security affairs), a senior advisor to the president, is at the heart of the NSC structure. Ideally, the national security advisor’s role is twofold: to offer advice to the president and to coordinate and manage policymaking. Because they have direct access to the president and do not represent a cabinet department such as the State Department or Defense Department, national security advisors are in a unique position to drive foreign policy decisions, manage the actors involved, and mitigate conflict throughout the decision-making process.

II. National Security Council Staff

The NSC staff consists of individuals from a collection of agencies that support the president, the vice president, and the administration. NSC staff members are generally organized into directorates that focus on regions or issues. The size and organization of the staff vary with each administration.

The NSC staff provides expertise for the variety of national security policy matters considered by the committees and the president. It manages numerous responsibilities, including preparing speeches, memos, and discussion papers and handling inquiries from Congress on foreign policy issues. Staff members analyze both immediate and long-term issues and help prioritize these issues on the interagency agenda.

III. Committee Structure

Committees are at the core of policy deliberation and policymaking in the NSC. They fall into four categories:

  • The highest-level is the National Security Council itself. Formal NSC meetings are chaired by the president and include individuals named by the National Security Act of 1947 as well as other senior aides the president invites.
  • The principals committee (PC) comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state and defense. The national security advisor traditionally chairs the principals committee.
  • The deputies committee (DC) includes the deputy leaders of the government departments represented on the principals committee and is chaired by the deputy national security advisor.
  • Policy coordination committees (PCCs) cover a range of regional areas and issues. Each committee includes officials who specialize in the relevant area or issue at one of the departments or agencies in the interagency system. PCCs are generally chaired by senior directors on the NSC staff. Much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement foreign policy across the U.S. government happens at the PCC level.

This committee structure tackles both immediate crises such as an outbreak of conflict and enduring issues such as climate change. In the normal course of events, PCCs conduct analysis on an issue, gather views on it and its importance from various departments, formulate and evaluate policy options, and determine what resources and steps would be required to carry out those options. The deputies committee, meanwhile, manages the interagency process up and down. It decides what PCCs to establish and gives them specific assignments. It also considers information submitted by the PCCs, ensuring that it is relevant, complete, and clear, before relaying it to the principals committee or the full NSC.

The principals committee is the highest-level setting, aside from the NSC itself, for debating national security issues. It consists of the heads of the NSC’s component agencies—essentially all the members of the NSC except the president and vice president. Formal NSC meetings, which the president chairs, occur whenever the president sees fit. They consider issues that require the president’s personal attention and a direct presidential decision.

The goal of this committee structure is to foster consensus on policy options or highlight where and why consensus cannot be reached. If officials at one level agree on an issue, it may not need to go to senior officials for a decision. This practice reserves the president’s time, and that of the principals, for the most complicated and sensitive debates.

When a crisis erupts, however, issues may not follow the usual path up from the PCCs. In these cases, NSC staff members and officials in government departments and agencies generally draft papers drawing on their expertise, available intelligence, and any existing contingency plans. Policy options are then debated and decided at the appropriate level, depending on the nature and severity of the crisis. The policymaking process may also deviate from this model based on the preferences of each president.

For the purposes of Model Diplomacy’s NSC simulation, you will role-play the NSC meeting with the assumption that the committees described have already done their jobs and passed critical information to the highest-level decision-makers.

Presidential Decisions

When the president makes a policy decision, it may take the form of a verbal instruction recorded in a NSC staff document and shared with relevant departments and agencies. The president may also issue formal decisions in documents that lay out the administration’s policy and explain its rationale and goals. These documents have gone by different names under different presidents. President Donald J. Trump issues national security presidential memoranda, which replace the presidential policy directives and presidential study directives that President Barack Obama issued.

The president may also issue an executive order. In the past, presidents have issued executive orders for such purposes as facilitating sanctions against foreign individuals and establishing new offices in government departments to achieve foreign policy aims. For federal agencies, both national security directives and executive orders carry the full force and effect of law, though the president’s authority to issue these kinds of documents is sometimes questioned.

National Security Council meeting
President Bush leads a meeting of the National Security Council.

“These complex times have made clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”

— Obama 2015 National Security Strategy

1.3 Departments and Agencies

Although many executive branch departments and agencies are involved in foreign policy and, depending on the issue, play a role in the NSC process, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community form the core of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice often play crucial roles as well.

Department of State

The Department of State conducts the United States’ relations with other countries and international organizations. It maintains U.S. diplomatic presence abroad, issues visas for foreigners to enter the country, aids U.S. citizens overseas, and manages cultural exchanges and other programs to promote American interests. As head of the department, the secretary of state is the president’s principal foreign affairs advisor and has a keen understanding of the United States’ international relations, the relationships between foreign countries, and the behavior and interests of their governments.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense carries out U.S. defense policy and maintains U.S. military forces. It includes the U.S. ArmyNavyMarine Corps, and Air Force, as well as an array of agencies with missions ranging from advanced technological research to defense cooperation with friendly countries. The department employs more than two million military and civilian personnel and operates military bases across the United States and abroad. The secretary of defense, the head of the department and the president’s principal defense policy advisor, stays up-to-date on the security situation in foreign countries and the possibilities and implications of U.S. military involvement. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces and the president’s top military advisor.

Intelligence Community

The U.S. intelligence community consists of seventeen agencies and organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which gather and analyze intelligence to help policymakers formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each of these agencies has its own mission; for example, the NSA focuses on signals intelligence (information gathered from communications and other electronic signals) and the Defense Intelligence Agency on military information. The director of national intelligence, the president’s principal advisor on intelligence issues, oversees this network of agencies with the aim of ensuring that they work together and deliver the best possible information to U.S. policymakers.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The secretary of the treasury, as head of this department, serves as one of the president’s chief economic advisors and is responsible for addressing a range of economic concerns, including growth, trade and investment, and the position of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury’s ten bureaus, which include the U.S. Mint and the Internal Revenue Service, do much of the department’s work, which ranges from collecting tax to printing currency and executing economic sanctions.

Department of Homeland Security

Created soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security works to counter and respond to risks to American security. It focuses on issues such as terrorism prevention, border security and immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity. Familiar agencies within the department include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks travelers and goods coming into the United States; the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the president and investigates financial crimes; and the Transportation Security Administration, which ensures security at airports. The secretary of homeland security oversees the department and advises the president on relevant issues.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes possible violations of federal law, represents the U.S. government in legal matters, oversees federal prisons, and works more broadly to prevent and respond to crime. Agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are part of the department, as are divisions focusing on particular areas of law, such as national security and civil rights. Leading the department is the attorney general, who offers legal advice to the president and the heads of other departments, including on matters under discussion in the NSC.

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Guide Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
attorney general:head of the Department of Justice and chief lawyer of the U.S. government. Among other duties, he or she offers advice on the legal aspects of proposed policies to the president and other department heads.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
blockade:an act of war wherein a foreign military cuts off access to a specific location, usually a port, to impede deliveries of supplies. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba—calling it a “quarantine” to avoid the implication of declaring war—in response to Soviet missile activity on the island.


Cabinet:the group comprising the vice president of the United States and the heads of all fifteen federal executive departments, such as the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, labor, and education. Other officials may also have cabinet rank, depending on the administration.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS):the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. The CJCS does not exercise command authority over U.S. troops, but instead works with the leaders of the U.S. military services to fulfill his function as the top military advisor to the president and other senior officials.
chief of staff to the president:a close advisor to the president who is responsible for coordinating the implementation of presidential policy and managing the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes the national security staff among many other entities.
cyberwarfare:defensive and offensive actions taken by a government or nonstate actor in the realm of information network systems and digital infrastructure. Specific actions include planting computer viruses, mounting denial-of-service attacks to disrupt internet and network activity, and conducting electronic surveillance.


director of national intelligence:the president’s principal advisor for intelligence-related matters and the head of the intelligence community, a network of seventeen agencies and organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that collect and analyze information to assist policymaking.


executive order (EO):a decision issued by the president that carries the full force and effect of law. An executive order usually instructs government departments and agencies to implement or modify particular policies or procedures.


foreign policy:a country’s attitudes and actions in the international arena. Foreign policy includes two principal elements: goals or interests as the country defines them, such as peace with one’s neighbors, and the means pursued to advance these interests, such as diplomatic negotiations, trade agreements, and military alliances. A country carries out its foreign policy through its dealings with other countries, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and nonstate actors such as corporations and advocacy groups.


interagency:involving two or more agencies. The National Security Council (NSC), for example, is an interagency forum, not a forum internal to any one agency.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Security Act:a law signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to reorganize the agencies and processes related to intelligence, foreign policy, and the military. Among its reforms, the act established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
national security advisor (NSA):the so-called honest broker of the national security policy process and the president’s principal advisor on national security issues. The NSA manages the National Security Council (NSC) staff, chairs the principals committee, and coordinates and manages policymaking with the goal of ensuring effective policy development and implementation.
National Security Council (NSC):an interagency body that serves as the forum for the president to discuss and take action on the most critical national security issues facing the United States. Its membership has varied since its creation in 1947, and now includes the president, vice president, national security advisor, secretaries of state and defense, and a variety of other senior officials.
National Security Council (NSC) staff:the president’s national security and foreign policy personnel. The NSC staff receives direction from the president via the national security advisor, provides expertise on issues and regions, and collaborates frequently with employees from other government departments and agencies to carry out the interagency policymaking process.
national security presidential memorandum:a type of presidential directive, or official order from the president, on matters related to national security. Called different names by different administrations, these documents may initiate a review of current policy, reorganize the structure of the national security policy apparatus, or lay out new strategies.
nonstate actors:individuals or groups that do not belong to or act on behalf of a state. This may refer to nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, media outlets such as the New York Times, or terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.


policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
principals committee (PC):the highest-level setting, aside from the National Security Council (NSC) itself, for debating issues in the NSC system. Generally chaired by the national security advisor, it comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, and other senior officials.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secretary of defense:the principal defense policy advisor to the president and head of the Department of Defense, which oversees the formulation and execution of defense policy and manages U.S. military forces.
secretary of energy:the head of the Department of Energy, which executes U.S. policy on energy, environmental, and nuclear issues and oversees seventeen national scientific research laboratories.
secretary of homeland security:the head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This department works to protect U.S. security by implementing federal policy concerning terrorism prevention, border security, immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity.
secretary of state:the president’s chief foreign affairs advisor, the country’s chief diplomat, and the head of the Department of State, which conducts the United States’ relationships with foreign countries and international organizations.
secretary of the treasury:one of the president’s chief economic advisors and head of the department of the treasury, which carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The department is home to the U.S. Mint and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.
special operations forces:elite U.S. military units, such as Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams and Army Special Forces, grouped under U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). They conduct specialized and often sensitive missions that include guerrilla warfare, counterterrorism raids, counterproliferation, and advanced reconnaissance.


tariff:a tax on goods arriving from a foreign country, generally used as a tool of trade and foreign policy to penalize adversaries or favor allies or domestic producers.


U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (UN):the ambassador-level official who advances U.S. foreign policy interests in the bodies and forums of the UN system.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.


vice president:the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. government and first in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to serve. Though given only one responsibility in the Constitution—to serve as president of the U.S. Senate, with the power to break ties—the vice presidency has become a visible part of the modern White House. Today’s vice presidents undertake a variety of functions, from serving as an all-purpose presidential advisor to carrying out diplomatic trips abroad. The personality of the individual who occupies this post and his or her relationship with the president define the scope of the role.
Case Notes Sections
Bahrain protest
Unrest in Bahrain SMALL PROMO PHOTO

2.1 The Issue

In the small island country of Bahrain, located in the Persian Gulf (sometimes known as the Arabian Gulf), government and security forces have clashed with protesters seeking democratic reform. Bahrain’s leaders belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, a minority in the country; the majority of Bahrainis are Shiite. There is a history of Sunni-Shia tension in Bahrain, but that tension is only one dimension of the current situation. Broader societal stresses—including repression, disenfranchisement, and limited economic opportunity for the country’s majority—also drive calls for reform.

Bahraini activists, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, gathered in the capital, Manama, in February 2011, to demand reforms from the government. These reforms included a new constitution that provides for an elected parliament and independent courts, the release of protesters arrested in police crackdowns, and freedom of expression. Some opposition groups made more forceful calls for Bahrain to become a true constitutional monarchy and for an end to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s rule. The ruling Khalifa family has responded to these protests with force and mass arrests.

Bahrain’s primary importance to the United States is its strategic location as the base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, whose presence in the Persian Gulf helps ensure the free flow of oil from the Middle East. As a result, the United States has formed close economic and military relationship with the kingdom. However, the continuing unrest raises the question of whether the United States, as a democracy, should support calls for democratic reform in Bahrain, even if doing so damages the government-to-government relationship and threatens U.S. strategic interests in the country.

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Unrest in Bahrain SMALL PROMO PHOTO

“America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc -- the Wifaq -- to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people. We believe the patriotism that binds Bahrainis together must be more powerful than the sectarian forces that would tear them apart. It will be hard, but it is possible.”

-President Barack Obama, September 21, 2011

2.2 Background

Bahrain is a country about one-fifth the size of Rhode Island and has a population of 1.3 million. Most sources indicate that the Bahraini citizenry is about 70 percent Shia, though the government maintains that the actual proportion is smaller.

Bahrain has been ruled by the Khalifa family since its ancestors arrived from neighboring Qatar in 1783. Although the country was widely perceived to be more open and progressive than its neighbors in the Gulf, the reality is complex. Bahrain’s government has adopted policies aimed at supporting religious tolerance; upholding women’s rights, including the right to vote and run for office; and bolstering public healthcare and schooling. Despite these policies, Bahrain’s human rights record is dismal, political accountability is nonexistent, and the government is particularly discriminatory and repressive toward the majority Shiite population (though Bahraini Sunnis have also been subjected to state repression).

A British protectorate for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Bahrain became the site of a small U.S. naval presence following World War II. (British protectorates had their own rulers but territorial sovereignty, specifically with regard to international relations and taxation, was vested in the British Crown). After then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States enlarged its presence in Bahrain by reestablishing and basing the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet there. In 2002, the George W. Bush administration designated Bahrain a major non-NATO ally, conferring certain military benefits on the country, such as participation in military-related research and development and special financing for the purchase of U.S. military equipment. In 2004, the United States and Bahrain signed a free trade agreement that expanded commercial relations between the countries.

The current Bahraini unrest began on February 14, 2011, when government forces shot at and beat peaceful protesters. Inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that had occurred in the previous months, the demonstrators, generally Shias but also Sunnis, believed the moment was opportune to demand a more democratic society. The government’s attempts to quash the uprising proved counterproductive because its use of force hardened—at least briefly—the opposition’s call for an end to monarchy. On February 17, security forces raided a protest camp, killing several protesters and injuring hundreds more. When protests intensified in March 2011, the ruling family appealed to its allied neighbors for help. In response, the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dispatched two thousand troops to Manama to help the Bahraini government put down the protests and reestablish order.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates acted to support Bahrain for two reasons. First, as fellow nondemocratic monarchies, they feared that the same popular movements that brought down Tunisian and Egyptian dictators could spread and endanger their own holds on power. Second, they believed that the mostly Shiite uprising in Bahrain was being incited by Iran—a large, non-Arab, predominantly Shiite country and rival of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and its allies. The Bahraini government argued that Iran, which until 1970 claimed Bahrain as part of its territory, was attempting to undermine the monarchy. In February 2013, Bahraini officials arrested eight people taking part in antigovernment protests and alleged that these individuals had links to Iran.

Following the initial uprising, King Hamad formed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the government crackdown that began in response to the February 14 protests. The commission’s five-hundred-page report found evidence of excessive force and torture and concluded that Bahraini authorities had caused the deaths of protesters. The commission made twenty-six recommendations to the government to ensure that such a crackdown would not happen again. Bahrain and other states welcomed the report, though critics expressed concern that its recommendations did not specifically address ways to resolve the underlying political crisis. Bahrain’s government agreed to adhere to the report’s recommendations but ultimately implemented only a handful of them.

In 2012, reports of government-supported raids on Shiite mosques and villages made achieving a political resolution to the crisis more difficult. An upsurge in violence took place in mid-2012, when the government proceeded with plans to host a Formula One race, which Bahraini officials had previously used to showcase the country as modern and progressive. Opposition groups tried to take advantage of the large contingent of international news agencies present for the racing event by staging demonstrations before and during the race, sparking clashes with Bahraini authorities.

Tensions between protesters and authorities have continued with little progress toward an improved dialogue between the government and opposition groups. The third anniversary of the 2011 demonstrations saw new protests calling for King Hamad’s removal, resulting in violent clashes with the police. Bahrain’s government has further jailed or revoked the citizenship of activists and, in 2016, dissolved the main opposition party, Al-Wefaq.

Although the United States has criticized Bahrain’s repressive measures and called for restraint and dialogue between the government and opposition groups, the unrest in Bahrain has had little effect on the relationship between the two countries. Since coming to office in January 2017, President Donald J. Trump has deemphasized human rights issues in Bahrain. As part of a broad strategy to fight extremism and counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, the U.S. president has set aside efforts to promote reforms in the country in favor of security cooperation. In May 2017, in a meeting with King Hamad during a trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump made his intentions clear. “Our countries have a wonderful relationship together,” he said, “I look forward to it very much—many of the same things in common.”

Unrest in Bahrain SMALL PROMO PHOTO

“For more than half a century, the United States has come to count on a partnership with Bahrain. Over the last decade, that alliance has become even more crucial. Since 1995, Bahrain has been home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. And in the years since 9/11, Bahrain has been a valued ally in the War on Terror.”

-Former U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, September 2004

2.3 Role of the United States

The instability in Bahrain has far-reaching implications for both the United States and the Persian Gulf. Throughout the unrest in Bahrain, the United States has continued to advocate for dialogue between the opposition and government loyalists. Ultimately, both U.S. interests and values are at stake.

Bahrain under the Khalifa family has long been a U.S. ally. It hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the surrounding waters, including the Strait of Hormuz; helps ensure the free flow of energy resources from the Middle East to other parts of the world; and deters U.S. adversaries such as Iran. Bahrain and the United States also work together closely on defense and counterterrorism issues. Moreover, the United States enjoys close commercial and economic relations with Bahrain, reinforced by a bilateral free trade agreement.

Instability in Bahrain could endanger these strategic and economic interests. For example, increased U.S. pressure on the Bahraini government for democratic reforms could anger the ruling family, which could reduce bilateral cooperation in response. Intensified domestic opposition could weaken or topple the government, resulting in a power vacuum or an uncertain transition during which the United States would lack a reliable partner. 

A new crackdown by the authorities could spark an international backlash, forcing the United States to distance itself from the Bahraini government. In such a case, American values need to be considered. Support for democracy and freedom has traditionally been a principal component of U.S. foreign policy; therefore, Washington cannot simply ignore the Shiite population’s demands for a more just and equitable society in Bahrain. However, by the standards of the Persian Gulf, Bahrain is considered to be relatively progressive—for example, with respect to women’s rights. Strong U.S. pressure on the regime could cause instability that would endanger the few freedoms that Bahrainis enjoy.

Seeking to balance its interests and values, the United States has not fully embraced the Bahraini demonstrators. In particular, it has stopped short of supporting the opposition’s demand for an end to the Khalifa family’s rule. The core question is whether the United States should continue to stand behind the Khalifa family despite its nondemocratic practices or more firmly back the aspirations of Bahrain’s Shiite majority. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summed up the U.S. predicament in Bahrain when she declared, “As a country with many complex interests, we’ll always have to walk and chew gum at the same time. That is our challenge in a country like Bahrain, which has been America’s close friend and partner for decades. And yet, President Obama and I have been frank, in public and in private, that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away.

The United States has numerous options for dealing with a crisis in Bahrain. The question is what combination of them would be most successful in this case. The United States could consider the following:

  1. Move the Fifth Fleet to Qatar or Kuwait, or threaten to do so unless the Bahraini government implements certain reforms
  2. Pressure the Bahraini government with a cessation of all arms and military assistance, or make military assistance conditional upon political progress
  3. Threaten to suspend the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement over Bahrain’s violation of certain parts of the agreement 
  4. Target foreign aid toward organizations deemed favorable to U.S. interests, such as specific opposition groups or reformers within the monarchy
  5. Publicly criticize the Bahraini government
  6. Articulate U.S. concern for the situation in Bahrain in an international forum such as the United Nations in order to highlight the issue and call on other countries to put pressure on Bahrain 
  7. Recognize the strategic benefits of the U.S. relationship with the Khalifa regime and offer full U.S. support to the ruling family


Case Notes Glossary


al-Khalifa:the ruling family of Bahrain since 1783, which includes the king and approximately half of the country’s government ministers.
al-Wefaq:Bahrain’s leading, mostly Shia opposition political society. In October 2014, a Bahraini court ordered a three-month suspension of the group, which has long had a strained relationship with the government.
Ayatollah Isa Qassim:a Shia cleric and politician considered to be al-Wefaq’s spiritual leader. Educated in Iran, he is conservative and speaks out frequently against the West.


Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI):a commission created by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in June 2011 to investigate the government’s behavior toward protestors in February and March of that year. The commission’s November 2011 report detailed torture and excessive force by the Bahraini security forces. It made twenty-six recommendations that the king accepted but implemented unevenly.
bilateral defense agreement:a document that facilitates military cooperation, such as intelligence sharing and joint exercises and training, between two countries. It may also outline terms for access to military facilities in one country by another country’s armed forces. The United States and United Kingdom maintain such agreements with Bahrain.


constitutional monarchy:a type of government formally headed by a monarch but functionally run by a legislature and a leader such as a prime minister. The United Kingdom is a prominent example.
coup d’état:a government takeover, often led by the military, that does not use the country’s codified mechanisms for changing power (such as elections).
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa:the reform-minded son of Bahrain’s king and heir apparent to the throne of Bahrain. He was educated in Washington, DC, and Cambridge, England.


expatriate:a citizen of one country who lives in another.


February 14 Revolution Youth Coalition:also known as the February 14 Youth Coalition, a Bahraini opposition group composed primarily of young people. The group frequently calls for regular protests against the Bahraini government on Facebook and other social media platforms.
February 14, 2011:the first day of national protests in Bahrain, also known as the Day of Rage. Inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, thousands of Bahrainis marched across the country to demand political reforms.
Fifth Fleet:the U.S. naval force, headquartered in Bahrain, whose area of responsibility includes the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, and some of the Indian Ocean. The fleet helps protect U.S. interests in the Middle East, for example by ensuring the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and combating piracy. Its base in Bahrain is currently undergoing a $580 million expansion that will double its size.


gerrymander:to define an electoral district in a way that privileges a particular party or group.


improvised explosive device (IED):a homemade bomb or lethal device often created from nonmilitary parts and commonly used by nonstate actors such as terrorists and insurgents.
Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps:a branch of Iran’s military generally seen as the country’s most elite and hard-line force. Created in 1979, the Revolutionary Guard was intended to help the leaders of the new Islamic Republic avoid coups and other threats. Since then, though continuing in this role, the conservative IRGC has become an increasingly powerful force both within Iran and beyond. It is active in Iran’s politics and economy and conducts military activities to advance Iran’s agenda. The U.S. government has accused the IRGC of supporting terrorism in the Middle East.


Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa:The king’s uncle and the world’s longest-serving prime minister, in power in Bahrain since 1971.
King Fahd Causeway:the sixteen-mile-long highway that connects Saudi Arabia and Bahrain over the Gulf of Bahrain. Completed in 1986, it serves as a physical symbol of the cultural and commercial ties between the two countries, and was used by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops in 2011 to enter Bahrain.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa:Bahrain’s king and head of state since 2002. Educated in England and the United States, he wields immense authority, with the power to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and government officials, dissolve parliament, and rule by decree.


major non-NATO ally (MNNA):a U.S. government designation that confers military and financial privileges on a country that is considered friendly to the United States but is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
martial law:the military control of a territory, usually established in an emergency situation. Typically, normal laws are suspended; authorities are granted greater powers; and civil liberties, such as freedom of assembly, are restricted.


naturalization:the legal process through which a citizen of one country gains citizenship in another.


Pearl Roundabout:a major traffic circle in the Bahraini capital, Manama. Named for the Pearl Monument that marked the site, it served as a meeting point for pro-democracy protestors but was destroyed by security forces in March 2011.
protectorate:a locally autonomous territory that is dependent upon and controlled by a more powerful sovereign state. A protectorate often receives aid, military protection, and preferential trade treatment from the powerful state.


remittance:money sent by members of a diaspora living overseas to relatives or others in their native country.


sectarian:characterized by differences among religious or political subgroups or sects, such as Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Shia Islam:one of the major sects of Islam. Though they make up less than 20 percent of Muslims worldwide, Shiite Muslims account for about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population. Other countries with Shiite majorities include Iran and Iraq.
Sunni Islam:one of the major sects of Islam, comprising more than 80 percent of all Muslims. Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni, even though Sunnis are a minority within the country. Countries with Sunni majorities include Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt.


United States-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement (USBFTA):A 2006 agreement that eliminated most tariffs on industrial and agricultural products traded between the two countries.
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role

Welcome to your role as a participant in the National Security Council (NSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations" tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the NSC, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, or as a general advisor to the president, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your position memo and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the position memo and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Memoranda (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

You can learn about your role by reading the information provided on your role sheet, which can be found in the Guide to the Role-Play section (3.4). Review this information thoroughly and often, as your objectives and strategy in the position memo and role-play will be shaped by the institutional perspective of the role you have been assigned (unless you are playing a general advisor). After you finish the role-play and subsequent debrief, you will have an opportunity to share your personal thoughts and recommendations on this case in a policy review memo (Section Four, Wrap-up).

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the NSC in general and of this NSC meeting in particular;
    • the U.S. interests at stake in the case and their importance to national security;
    • your role and your department or agency, including its purpose and objectives in the government and on the NSC;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your role;
    • the elements that a comprehensive policy proposal on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the NSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the U.S. interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of U.S. interests at stake in the case, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the president or other NSC members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.  
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP).

Reading List


2.1 The Issue

CIA World Factbook: Bahrain

Bernard Gwertzman and F. Gregory Gause III, “Is Bahrain’s Regime Next to Fall?” CFR.org Interview, February 18, 2011, http://www.cfr.org/bahrain/bahrains-regime-next-fall/p24169.

Amnesty International, “The ‘Arab Spring’: Five Years on,” January 5, 2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/01/arab-spring-five-years-on/.


2.2 Background

Elliott Abrams, “Bahrain: ‘Insulting a Public Institution’ Means Prison,” CFR.org, January 21, 2015, http://blogs.cfr.org/abrams/2015/01/21/bahrain-insulting-a-public-institution-means-prison/.

Kelly McEvers, “Bahrain: The Revlution that Wasn’t,” NPR, January 5, 2012, https://www.npr.org/2012/01/05/144637499/bahrain-the-revolution-that-wasnt.

“Bahrain Human Rights Deteriorate as World Looks Away: Activists,” Reuters, January 25, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bahrain-rights/bahrain-human-rights-deteriorate-as-world-looks-away-activists-idUSKBN1FE2SO


2.3 Role of the United States

Giorgio Cafiero and Jesse Schatz, “Why Bahrain Prefers Trump over Obama,” Atlantic Council, May 1, 2017, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/why-bahrain-prefers-trump-over-obama.

Alison Meuse, “Human Rights Activists Warn of Worsening Situation in Bahrain,” NPR, June 6, 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/06/06/531216993/human-rights-activists-warn-of-worsening-situation-in-bahrain

Brian Dooley, “Obama’s Failed Policy on Bahrain,” Politico, June 27, 2016, https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2016/06/obama-failed-policy-bahrain-000151


Further Reading

Amnesty International, “Bahrain: Reform Shelved, Repression Unleashed,” November 2012, http://www.amnesty.ca/sites/default/files/bahrainbriefing21november12_0.pdf.

Maryam al-Khawaja, “I Went Home to See My Dad—and Ended Up in Jail Myself,” Foreign Policy, January 15, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/15/i-went-home-to-see-my-dad-and-ended-up-in-jail-myself-bahrain-human-rights/.

Tim Arango, “Shiites in Iraq Support Bahrain’s Protestors,” New York Times, April 1, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/02/world/middleeast/02iraq.html?_r=2&.

Reza Aslan, “Bahrain’s Fake Sectarian War,” Foreign Affairs, June 30, 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/features/letters-from/bahrains-fake-sectarian-war.

Joost Hiltermann, “Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict?” New York Review of Books, May 8, 2012,  http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/may/08/bahrain-new-sectarian-conflict/.

House of Commons, “The UK’s Relations With Saudi Arabia and Bahrain,” Fifth Report of Session 2013–14, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmfaff/88/88.pdf.

Human Rights First, “Plan B for Bahrain: What the United States Government Should Do Next,” November 2013, http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/uploads/pdfs/HRF-Plan-B-Bahrain-rep.pdf.

Ed Husain, “The Prince and the Ayatollah,” International Herald Tribune, May 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/02/opinion/the-prince-and-the-ayatollah.html?pagewanted=all.

International Crisis Group, “Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VIII): Bahrain’s Rocky Road to Reform,” July 28, 2011, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/iraq-iran-gulf/bahrain/111-popular-protest-in-north-africa-and-the-middle-east-viii-bahrains-rocky-road-to-reform.aspx.

Chris Johnston and agencies, “Britain to Build First Permanent Middle East Military Base in Four Decades,” Guardian, December 6, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/06/britain-first-middle-eastern-military-base-bahrain.

Kelly McEvers, “The Crackdown”, Washington Monthly, March/April 2012, http://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/marchapril-2012/the-crackdown/

Doug Palmer, Christopher Wilson, and Paul Simao, “U.S. Requests Talks With Bahrain Over 2011 Labor Crackdown,” Reuters, May 7, 2013,  http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/07/us-usa-bahrain-labor-idUSBRE94615220130507.

Geoff Pugh, “Everyday life in Bahrain,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/9108702/Everyday-life-in-Bahrain.html    

Project on Middle East Democracy, “One Year Later: Assessing Bahrain’s Implementation of the BICI Report,” November 2012, http://pomed.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/POMED_BahrainReport_web-FINAL.pdf.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “Bahrain’s Aborted Revolution,” LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2012, http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/publications/reports/pdf/SR011/FINAL_LSE_IDEAS__BahrainsAbortedRevolution_Ulrichsen.pdf.

U.S. Department of State, “Bahrain 2013 Human Rights Report,” http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/220560.pdf.

U.S. Department of State, “Steps Taken by the Government of Bahrain to Implement the Recommendations in the 2011 Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry,” June 2016, http://pomed.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/State-BICI-Report.pdf.

Frederic Wehrey, “The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy,” Carnegie Papers, February 2013, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/bahrain_impasse.pdf.


Quotation Sources

Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, “Stability Is Prerequisite for Progress,” Washington Times, April 19, 2011,   http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/apr/19/stability-is-prerequisite-for-progress/.

Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly,” White House, September 21, 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/21/remarks-president-obama-address-united-nations-general-assembly.

Robert B. Zoellick, “Transcript of U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement Signing Ceremony,” Office of the United States Trade Representative, September 2004, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/speeches/archives/2004/september/transcript-us-bahrain-free-trade-agreement-si.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. In completing this section and Section Four, you will write two memoranda, or memos. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how U.S. foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.

What is a memorandum?

  • A memo is a formal, succinct written message from one person, department, or organization to another. It is an important form of formal, written communication in the workplace. A memo is generally short, to the point, and free of flowery language and extraneous information. A memo is typically informative or decision-oriented and is formatted in a way that helps readers quickly grasp the main points.
  • In the National Security Council (NSC), memos consider, coordinate, and articulate policy options. They help analyze, evaluate, advocate, and channel those policy options and decisions within the bureaucracy.
  • Memos also function as historical record. Many memos related to NSC discussions and presidential decisions are filed in government archives. Some are later declassified and released to help people understand how policy was devised at a given time in U.S. history. You can access historical examples of memos online. One such resource is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists and offers links to memoranda and directives that various U.S. presidents have issued.

Position Memo 


  • The first memo everyone (except the president) writes is called a position memo. It is written from the perspective of your assigned role. It presents a set of policy options for consideration by the NSC and recommends one of them to the president. The recommendation, or position, outlined in this memo is the one you will present during the role-play. (Keep in mind you may change your position as a result of the role-play discussion.)
  • The position memo will help your fellow NSC members consider the issue efficiently and facilitate decision-making by the president. Equally important, it will help you clarify your understanding of the case by forcing you to identify the essential facts and viable policy options.
  • If you have been assigned a specific role, remember that you are writing from the point of view of the department, agency, or office you represent. Using your institutional position as a lens, you will outline a set of options to address the crisis. Make sure you take into account the pros, cons, and ramifications of each option as it pertains to your role and as it is informed by your reading of the case materials and further research. Also, anticipate critiques of your proposed policy and incorporate your response into the memo. Doing so will help you prepare for the role-play.

Note: If you are assigned the role of president, you will not write a position memo. Instead, you will write a two-page presidential directive, or PD, at the conclusion of the role-play. You will address the PD, which will follow a memo format, to the NSC members and inform them of your final decision regarding the policy option or options to be implemented (see below).

If your teacher has chosen to assign everyone the role of general advisor to the president, you will not need to write the position memo from a particular institutional position. Instead, you will have the flexibility to approach the issue from your own perspective, incorporating a comprehensive assessment of the crisis into your argument.


Position Memo Guidelines

Total length: approximately one thousand words

  • Subject and background (two short paragraphs): Summarize in the first paragraph the significance of the issue in the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Identify in the second the central policy question or questions to be decided. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader understands your memo’s purpose and importance; do not attempt to discuss the case in any depth.
  • Objectives (bullet points): Succinctly state your department’s objectives in the current crisis. These can be general national security objectives (such as preventing war) or more specific goals tied to your department’s mission (such as protecting U.S. citizens). They should be important to U.S. national security, directly tied to the case, and feasible. These objectives should guide the policy analysis and recommendation that make up the rest of your memo.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph for each option): Present and analyze several options for U.S. policy. Discuss their costs, benefits, and resource needs where possible. To illuminate the trade-offs inherent in complex policy decisions, be sure to acknowledge the weaknesses or disadvantages of each proposed option. No option is likely to be perfect.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify your preferred policy option or options and describe how you think it or they could be carried out. Explain your reasoning, keeping in mind that you aim to convince the president to follow your recommendation. Addressing the weaknesses or disadvantages you identified in the options and analysis section can help strengthen your argument.

Click here to see a sample position memo.

Presidential Directive


The format of the presidential directive is simpler than that of a position memo. A directive contains a record of the policy option or options that the president has chosen as well as the accompanying orders to various parts of the government with details on how to carry out these decisions.

  • Start with a short paragraph describing the purpose of the memo. Everyone you are writing to was in the NSC meeting, so only brief context is needed.
  • Explain in numbered paragraphs the decisions you have made, why you have made them, and any details regarding how you want the decisions carried out.
  • Explain the communications strategy for the decision, considering both relevant foreign governments and the public. Also, consider that you may wish to keep certain elements of the decision secret from the public.
  • Include any additional details before you sign.
  • Be sure to include all the information necessary for NSC members to understand and carry out your intentions.

Click here  to see a sample presidential directive.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

During the simulated NSC meeting, you will meet to debate and discuss U.S. policy options in response to the issues outlined in the case. Consistent with the NSC’s mission to advise the president, you should raise the issues that are most important for the president to consider. This will enable him or her to make the most informed decision on policy options. Though you may or may not agree with this decision, your responsibility as an NSC member is to provide the best possible analysis and advice from the perspective of your role.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The National Security Advisor (NSA) will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the NSA.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the NSA, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the NSA calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address the president as Mr. or Madam President and your fellow NSC members in the same fashion (for example, Madam Secretary).
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the NSA will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic. Remember that you must advise the president so that he or she can reach a decision on a precise policy question.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a government official, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the NSC during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse.
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other NSC members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
2 to 3 minutes per participant
  1. Present initial positions to the president.
  2. Investigate the nuances of the positions through questioning.
  3. Clarify the central questions to be debated.
Procedural Notes

Each participant presents his or her position statement. If time permits, the president may ask questions to understand each NSC member’s position and bring out the essential questions he or she wishes to debate.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Clarify the obstacles, risks, opportunities, and threats.
  2. Evaluate the various positions on their merits.
Procedural Notes

This is the debate portion of the role-play, when participants can defend their recommendations against others’ and identify potential areas of compromise or agreement.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Narrow the options to a few comprehensive and well- focused strategies that the president prefers.
  2. Provide the president with clear recommendations (from NSC members), perhaps as a consensus or through a vote.
  3. Arrive at a final presidential decision 
Procedural Notes

This round should start with the president’s stating one to three preferred options to be fleshed out.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief

After the debate and deliberation close, the president will announce his or her decision, to be later finalized in the form of a written presidential directive (PD). If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the president’s announcement.

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the final presidential decision. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of crafting foreign policy. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.  

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Which U.S. interests did the group or the president prioritize in the PD and why? Were you comfortable with this prioritization?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the policymaking process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on foreign policy decision-making?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the National Security Council discussion and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the full spectrum of arguments and considerations that arose. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the president’s decision where appropriate.

If you played the role of president in the simulation, your memo should still reflect your personal opinion. You can comment on the course of action you ordered as president, further justify it, write more extensively on the options you dismissed, or suggest and support alternate options.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all you have learned. Your instructor will want to see whether and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines 

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to U.S. foreign policy and national security. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the president’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options discussed during the debate, deliberation, or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the president chose, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the presidential directive are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the president should have included in his directive, or what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a department or agency.

Click here to see a full example of a policy review memo.