Steven Simon, a longtime American foreign policy insider, offers a penetrating and definitive reckonding with America's involvement in the Middle East. Simon is the Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at CIS.
In addition to being an account of a forty‐year span of US entanglement in the Middle East, this book is a memoir, if one in which the narrator is largely hidden from view. Although the book is not about me, I was involved in much of the action from the middle of Ronald Reagan’s first term, when I began at the State Department, through the early part of Barack Obama’s second term, when I was engaged in an unofficial effort to reduce the level of violence in the Syrian conflict. Thus, the book implicitly covers the trajectory of one participant’s career that happens to map neatly onto the arc of US activism in the Middle East. My first assignment as a young civil servant was to game out a diplomatic strategy to facilitate the Reagan administration’s plans for military operations in the Middle East; my last government post, as National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, ended at the White House, witnessing Obama’s refusal to attack Iran or to put boots on the ground in Syria.
While this personal dimension is of little intrinsic interest, it was important to the conception and execution of this book. The narrative emerges from the imaginative space between the worldview of the author as witness and as historian. Although I am today far from the person I was as a government official, I remember that person, his perceptions, and emotions, and therefore the mood and aspirations that permeated the policy process over that span of three decades. In my view, the reconciliation of those recollections, and the historical understanding that evolved as the book was written, separate this book from others that have covered all or part of this epoch of war and diplomacy in the Middle East.
The book, therefore, reflects my experience as a civil servant and political appointee whose long engagement with the Middle East paralleled his country’s blundering efforts to reshape it. As events unfolded, I favored the exercise of American power in the Middle East, more to secure strategic interests than to disseminate either values or material largesse. I favored the first Gulf War and helped negotiate US base access agreements throughout the Arab states of the Persian Gulf in the months that followed. In the ensuing years at the White House as the senior director for counterterrorism, my role was to be, as my colleague Richard Clarke aptly described himself, against all enemies. And in the Obama administration, I participated in the planning and oversight of two ill‐fated interventions in the Middle East. So, the narrative arc of this book reflects a certain sober reassessment.
One of the attributes of a great power is the freedom to act without regard to cost. “Lead us not into temptation” had long been expunged from the Beltway version of the Lord’s Prayer. But the costs exist—they are cumulative and, over time, corrosive, particularly the cost of American actions to largely powerless Middle Eastern populations.
Indeed, this is not the book I set out to write, and it reflects a skepticism that surprised even me. Not unfairly, early readers have chalked up the negative judgments herein to the clarity of hindsight. They have noted that the decisions under review were made in the fog of war, under great uncertainty, by human beings subject to moral, intellectual, and cognitive limitations, and buffeted by political winds. This book takes no issue with these explanatory factors; it deploys them. Yet even when these conditions are taken into account, the frequent rejection of less costly alternative courses of action in favor of force of arms can still be mysterious and even breathtaking. One of the attributes of a great power is the freedom to act without regard to cost. “Lead us not into temptation” had long been expunged from the Beltway version of the Lord’s Prayer. But the costs exist—they are cumulative and, over time, corrosive, particularly the cost of American actions to largely powerless Middle Eastern populations.
I’ve been asked whether the United States is singularly inept, cruel, solipsistic, or any of many other moral or intellectual defects. My answer is an emphatic no. America not only enjoys a great deal of company but is leagues ahead of other imperial powers that have trod the vanquished territories of the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia‐Pacific region. The British, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgians, Germans, Russians, Japanese, and Turks were far crueler, greedier, and violent than the United States has been. The United States, moreover, has failed in distinctively American ways, rooted in a belief in its exceptionalism, frontier mythology, invulnerability as a continental power shielded by oceans on its flanks, and the inordinate might it wielded in the mid‐twentieth century.
Another question readers have raised relates to my personal assessment of the policymakers involved in this story. Immanuel Kant, in his Universal History, wrote, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” He was onto something, going back to the doctrine of original sin or perhaps even further in time. I am a Kantian in this respect and deeply skeptical of the perfectibility of human beings. What I do believe, however, is that the policymakers depicted in this book believed they were acting in their country’s best interests. They also projected these interests onto the states and populations of the Middle East. In the book, I frame this dynamic as a tension between the intentionalists who made and carried out US policy and the consequentialists who were the objects of that policy. Yes, we meant well, and our anger was righteous. But in this account, I try to link intentions and consequences and do justice to both. In any case, the book avoids moral judgments about the key players, although it should provide enough context for the reader to make up their own mind. Reading former defense secretary Robert McNamara’s memoir and his son’s recently published examination of his relationship with his father has reaffirmed my reluctance to go down that road.
If there is a consistent theme in this book, it is of the superimposition of grand ideas on antithetical Middle Eastern realities and American capacities. It is reflected in the rejection of intelligence community analyses and sober contemporary commentary. The delusion was rooted in the conviction that facts don’t matter, just intentions; that we create and inhabit our own reality, our capacities are unconfined, and the objects of our policy have no agency.
Was there a grand delusion? There was, and it was multidimensional. If there is a consistent theme in this book, it is of the superimposition of grand ideas on antithetical Middle Eastern realities and American capacities. It is reflected in the rejection of intelligence community analyses and sober contemporary commentary. The delusion was rooted in the conviction that facts don’t matter, just intentions; that we create and inhabit our own reality, our capacities are unconfined, and the objects of our policy have no agency. They are just avatars in our own metaverse.
So, against this understanding of events, the fact that the US policymakers involved—including me—wanted, when at their best, to make the Middle East a better place for its peoples while advancing US strategic interests amounts to a contributing factor; it is not exculpatory. Hence the reckoning that follows.
What went wrong?
In September 1982, Ronald Reagan dispatched US Marines to Lebanon, telling the American people, “We owe it to ourselves and to our children. The whole world will be a safer place when this region, which has known so much trouble, can begin to know peace instead.” 1 His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had declared that the United States would not tolerate any threats to “our” oil, as was commonly said at the time, but Reagan was not talking about warning off oil poachers in the Persian Gulf. By casting a local mash‐up of ethnic and religious vendettas and Israeli and Syrian maneuvering for territorial advantage as a cause with global consequences and multigenerational importance to all Americans, Reagan had fired the starting gun of a US race to dominate the Middle East.
Thirty‐four years later, Barack Obama told a former Senate colleague, “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa. That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.” 2 Donald Trump, in the wake of a devastating Iranian air attack on two Arabia American Oil Company (Aramco) installations that took half of Saudi production offline, tweeted that “we don’t need Middle Eastern Oil & Gas.” 3 He then cast doubt on Iranian responsibility and declared that if the United States did intervene on the Kingdom’s behalf, it would be purely on a fee‐for‐service basis.4 How did we go from a belief that a regional tussle over a small patch of land was a historic battle that would affect the entire world to an apparent rejection of the Middle East as an arena for US military intervention?
The aim of this book is to explore the reasons for the rise and fall of American engagement in the Middle East from 1979 to the present day. It is a tale of gross misunderstandings, appalling errors, and death and destruction on an epochal scale. According to Brown University’s 2021 “Cost of Conflict” report, the United States incurred $8 trillion in costs to wage the post‐9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which claimed over 900,000 lives and displaced millions.5 The number of Iraqis killed in the first Gulf War, and in the ensuing decade by sanctions, is estimated by demographers in the hundreds of thousands. This book describes the impact on the region of a great power whose policymakers—sophisticated, ethically inclined, superbly educated, certain of US interests—took understandable pride in their intentions while discounting the disastrous consequences of their actions.
Cycles of foreign engagement and retrenchment have churned since the earliest years of the American republic. But none has been so prolonged and dramatic as that between the fall of the shah of Iran during the Carter presidency and the collapse of the US position, or illusions about it, in the Middle East during Barack Obama’s administration: the open contempt of Gulf states and Israel, the failure of a vast effort to arm and train Syrian rebels; the “shit show,” as Obama described it, of intervention in Libya; the stalled attempts to foster democratic transitions during the Arab spring; the rise of the Islamic State; the inability to forge a durable constituency for a nuclear deal with Iran; and a bitter end to the Israeli‐Palestinian peace process. Obama’s successor, Donald J Trump, acquiesced in this situation while denying it and, where he could, exploiting it for personal or political gains.
This paradigm of engagement and retrenchment began more than two centuries ago, when the United States—then a tiny country with almost no foreign presence—was forced to defend its sailors and trade against the hostage‐taking privateers of North Africa’s Barbary Coast. Those maritime campaigns, waged by the Adams, Jefferson, and Madison administrations, have little popular resonance today. But they shaped the way Americans thought of their country’s role in the world, as well as their attitudes toward Muslims.
1. Transcript of President Reagan’s speech on sending marines into Lebanon. New York Times. September 21, 1982. Accessed June 9, 2023.
2. Goldberg, J. Obama unhappy with allies, upset at free riders. Atlantic Council. March 10, 2016. Accessed June 9, 2023.
3. Porter, T. Trump dubiously takes credit for US energy independence from Saudi Arabia, as oil prices spike after drone attack. Insider. September 16, 2019. Accessed June 9, 2023.
4. Harris, S, Cunningham, E, Fahim, K. Trump stops short of directly blaming Iran for attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The Washington Post. September 17, 2019. Accessed June 9, 2023.
5. The US budgetary costs of post‐9/11 wars through FY2022: $8 Trillion. The Costs of War Project, Watson Institute, Brown University. September 1, 2021. Accessed June 9, 2023.