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A scathing critique of U.S. Middle East policy, from Carter to Biden

ByTeam BB

Apr 20, 2023


Steven Simon’s merciless new history of American engagement in the Middle East from Jimmy Carter to Joe Biden spares few: In the estimation of the author, no American policymakers, across Republican or Democratic administrations, have much to be proud of.

I am hardly an uninterested party to the drama: I first grew acquainted with the region when the policymakers Simon ruthlessly castigates sent me to war there, repeatedly, as a young officer in the U.S. Army. After years of graduate study in the region, I returned to the government as a civilian and served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy for two years. I never worked with Simon, but I do know plenty of the people who come in for varying degrees of criticism in his book.

Some of those same people read early drafts of Simon’s book, he tells us, and — along with various esteemed scholars and journalists he turned to for comment — wondered whether he was being too harsh. Those readers, he forthrightly acknowledges, “chalked up the negative judgments herein to the clarity of hindsight.”

I’m not sure about that, but I do think this book, titled “Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East,” often falls into the same trap that has frustrated successive U.S. administrations: an overestimation of the degree to which our actions really matter. At times, U.S. interventions in the region, most notably the invasion of Iraq in 2003, have had an outsize effect on the fates of the people who live there. But lots of interesting things happen in the region when Americans are not there, and those things — including Arab nationalism, various strains of political Islam and competing Zionist ideologies — are more important than most debates in the Situation Room.

Roughly 400 million Arabs, Israelis, Kurds and other groups live in the region, yet by focusing almost exclusively on American actions, the author effectively strips away the role of local residents in creating their own destiny.

“Grand Delusion” focuses primarily on the actions of the executive branch and is organized in chapters covering successive presidential administrations. The role of Congress is largely unexamined, as are the roles played by departments and agencies in which Simon has not personally served. Congress, aside from controlling the purse strings, shapes and constrains Middle East policy in various ways — such as requiring that the United States maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over potential foes in the region. My friends who have served at the intoxicating heights of the National Security Council, which can seem like the center of the universe, have been vulnerable to solipsistic tendencies, and Simon, who served on the council in the Clinton and Obama administrations, is perhaps no exception in this regard.

But like Simon, I worry I am being too harsh in my judgments: because this is an illuminating book, written with exceeding wit and erudition.

America’s policies toward the Middle East, especially its policy toward Israel and the Iraq War, have often been the subjects of loud and nasty public debates. But Simon astutely observes that despite the heightened rhetoric, the surprising continuities between various administrations over the years outweigh the differences. Aside from the inevitable withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, for example, Simon provocatively yet correctly observes that “Trump continued Obama’s second-term Middle East policy.”

As you might expect, Simon is unsparing in his assessment of the George W. Bush administration and its disastrous decision to invade Iraq. But this story will already be depressingly familiar to most readers. One thing I appreciated about Simon’s broader narrative is that it does not let earlier administrations off the hook for creating the conditions that led to America’s greatest blunder since Vietnam: He rightly condemns the strategic malpractice of the Clinton-era policy of dual containment, whereby the United States attempted to independently constrain both Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Iran rather than balance them against one another. That policy, which may have pleased America’s client states in the region at the time, was a product of post-Cold War hubris on our part. It not only helped pave the way for the Iraq War but also helps explain why tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain garrisoned in the region today.

This being a memoir as well as an analysis of policy, Simon cannot resist settling a few scores: He lost several high-profile policy debates during the Obama administration, and he clearly retains some contempt for the people who won. Simon dismisses the president’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, as “a former lawyer for the mortgage giant Fannie Mae” and brushes aside another senior aide, Ben Rhodes, as “an aspiring novelist.”

These petty slights are unfair, and Simon should avoid credentialism when it comes to policymaking. As Simon himself notes, those most wrong in their judgments that the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria would quickly fall in the face of a disorganized and highly fragmented insurgency included some of the State Department’s most seasoned Arabists. Indeed, sometimes the most effective policymakers are not those with the best academic or regional résumés but those with the soundest temperament and judgment. (Also, the author probably doesn’t want to know what most regional scholars think of those who, like him, have primarily viewed the region through a counterterrorism lens.)

Simon also allows his arch-realism to carry him to dubious conclusions. It’s one thing to roll one’s eyes at the “peace process professionals” who produce much more process than peace, but is it also true, as Simon then argues, that there was “no compelling American strategic interest” in brokering peace between Israel and her neighbors once peace with Egypt had been negotiated? Successive American administrations have declared the security of Israel to be a vital U.S. interest, so it surely follows that the normalization of relations between Israel and other Arab states — including Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates — is a good thing, as are the efforts of U.S. diplomats toward that end.

But Simon’s ideological biases prevent him from dwelling too long on anything that might look like American success in the region: The U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State between 2015 and 2017, for example, is dismissively summarized in a single paragraph.

Simon also argues that the United States should not have been so quick to jettison the Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, whom he judges to have been a useful counterterrorism ally, in response to British and French entreaties to do so. But let’s play out the counterfactual: Would historians have judged the Obama administration more favorably had it stood aside while Gaddafi crushed the popular uprising in 2011 “inch by inch, home by home, alley by alley,” as he promised? That doesn’t seem likely.

When serving in the Pentagon, I used to remind my staff each evening to go home to spend time with their families because “we’re not going to fix the Middle East tonight.” It was a joke: Simon would agree it shouldn’t be the goal of U.S. policy to “fix” any region, much less one as complicated as the Middle East. But it’s also not in our power to do so, and as important as it is to be humble about our accomplishments in the region — the victory against the Islamic State, for example, was purchased largely with Arab and Kurdish blood — it’s also important not to be too hard on ourselves.

I hope all U.S. policymakers, then, read Simon’s book. But I also hope they do not take it too personally.

Andrew Exum is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and a partner at Hakluyt & Company, a management consultancy. He deployed to Kuwait and Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division and to Iraq and Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment.

The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East

Penguin Press. 478 pp. $32

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