Steven Simon, the Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at CIS, served as the National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa during the Obama Administration and as the council's senior director for counterterrorism in the Clinton White House. These assignments followed a 15-year career at the US Department of State. Between government appointments, he worked in the private sector and in academia. He came to MIT from Colby College, where he was professor of the practice of international relations. He sat down with précis to discuss his research at MIT, assess our nation’s security challenges, and offer advice to students pursuing careers in national security.
précis: What have you been working on during your time at CIS?
SS: I am putting the finishing touches on a book about the US and Middle East from 1979 to the present, working on a grant funded project related to the liquidation of imperial commitments, sketching out an MIT funded project about a 19th century British archeologist in Iraq, and writing about current domestic and foreign policy issues. For the first project, I am using case studies and fieldwork to identify the key things that imperial powers get wrong—and in a few cases, right—when they liquidate their security commitments and depart for home. I recently returned from Iraq, where I interviewed a range of Iraqis and US diplomats as part of this project. My other project explores the political activities on behalf of British interests in Iraq during the 1840s by the storied Victorian archeologist, Henry Austen Layard. This will entail dipping into the vast body of Layard’s papers at the British Museum and interviewing Iraqi, British and European scholars who specialize in that place and time.
précis: How do you assess the Biden administration’s response to the war in Ukraine?
SS: I think President Biden’s use of sensitive intelligence to publicize Putin’s intentions to invade Ukraine was important to a larger effort to mobilize international opposition to Russian aggression. And he organized the swift transfer of weapons that proved crucial to the Ukrainian effort to limit Russian gains and secure the capital. He was—thus far—less successful in judging the impact of sanctions and—so far as is known—in not probing Moscow’s willingness to stop shooting and start talking. And, although one can see why the administration is proclaiming its unwillingness to impose conditions on the transfer of weapons to Ukraine, it’s in US interest and global stability to stanch the fighting sooner rather than later. At some point, the US might consider using its support for Ukraine as leverage to enter ceasefire talks, assuming, of course, the Russians have also signaled their readiness.
précis: In April, you wrote “The United States and NATO should be less deferential to Mr. Putin’s attempt to wield the threat of nuclear weapons — not only for the sake of supporting Ukraine but also to ensure global geopolitical stability in the future” (“Why Putin Went Straight for the Nuclear Threat,” New York Times, April 1, 2022). Has your thinking on this changed? What is your assessment of the likelihood of nuclear use as the conflict drags on?
SS: Thoughtful international relations specialists have made a good case for caution, which runs a bit counter to the NYT essay. In their view, we don’t know much about the circumstances that would cause a nuclear armed state would unleash a nuclear weapon – thankfully there has been only case – but it would be reasonable to assume that such conditions might look a lot like the current situation vis a vis Russia. The country, after all, is under tremendous pressure while its army has suffered terrible losses. And Putin’s state of mind and the nature of command-and-control arrangements raise questions as well. So, while I think the argument in the NYT holds up, I do agree that the potential for escalation is there.
précis: Earlier this year, you reflected on the one-year anniversary of the January 6 storming of the US Capitol and recommended “War games, tabletop exercises, operations research, campaign analyses, conferences and seminars on the prospect of American political conflagration” (“We Need to Think the Unthinkable About Our Country,” New York Times, January 13, 2022). What was the response to your article and have you seen progress on preparedness?
SS: To be sure, the Biden administration is on the case. It is focusing Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI on domestic terrorism and not incidentally the number of weapons in production and circulation. And the Supreme Court leak relating to Roe V Wade has spurred a greater recognition of centrifugal forces at work in American society. Some scholars, like Kathleen Belew, are doing useful work on the organizational and ideological dimensions of radical Right politics. Awareness will get a boost with the release of the Congressional J6 committee report, while events like the Buffalo massacre concentrate the national mind. Senator Schumer’s letter to Rupert Murdoch connects the dots by noting the overlap between Fox viewers and believers in the replacement narrative, like the killer in Buffalo. But with headlines grabbed by the Ukraine crisis, the state of American democracy has not yet generated an all-hands-on-deck research program.
précis: How would you characterize the relationship between the events of January 6 and the recent mass-shootings?
SS: There’s a lurking variable that probably explains both episodes. The impetus for them is entrenched in American history but seems to be expressed on and off under certain conditions. Recently, these conditions have included Donald Trump’s rhetoric, a surge in conspiracy thinking, social and mainstream media that incite violence, and a large cohesive segment of the political class that validates conspiracy theories and legitimizes racism while explicitly calling for the abandonment of democracy.
précis: What lessons from your career working on counterterrorism in the Middle East would you apply to current US domestic terrorism challenges?
SS: The first is that the government can’t police this too aggressively or indiscriminately because it will force fence-sitters to pick up their guns. Second, there needs to be a robust, carefully considered national counter-radicalization effort designed and carried out by civilian agencies; you do not want law enforcement to be the face of the state. Third, those who are guilty of crimes must be prosecuted with full regard for due process. Fourth, and I’m quite hesitant about this, of course, is the need for tools that can spot the online activity of plotters like the Buffalo shooter. The only other thing I’d add is that we should refrain from passing domestic terrorism legislation, lest we provide dangerous tools to a future administration seeking to criminalize political opposition.
précis: In May, the Biden administration announced the redeployment of US ground forces into Somalia, reversing a Trump administration withdrawal. Does this decision signal a change in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, and what are some of the implications of this move?
SS: As far as I’m aware the administration has not released its counterterrorism strategy. The redeployment of US forces to Somalia suggests a readiness to engage militarily, at least in Somalia, but primarily in an advisory and special operations role geared to a “kingpin strategy,” which targets Shabaab leaders. There is no talk about winning, or defeating the Shabaab, or defending the new Somali government, let alone stabilizing or democratizing the country. The Shabaab have attacked at least one local US installation and might harbor greater ambitions. So, this is just the sort of satisfying approach that will yield temporary benefits on the ground and withering criticism from the Right and Left here at home.
précis: Do you have any advice for MIT students interested in pursuing a career in national security?
SS: Take the foreign service exam, check out the intelligence community, consider the military as an option, look into the presidential internship process, or try for a staff job on one of the foreign affairs or defense committees on the Hill. As a starting point, I’m readily available to speak with any student who would like to further explore these options.