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Worst Laid Plans

Foreign policy is politics
A collage of two photos: in the center, a missile being launched from a truck; in the background, oil field fires during the first Gulf War.

Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East by Steven Simon. Penguin Press, 496 pages. 2023.

In November 2019, during the first impeachment hearings of Donald Trump, right-thinking Americans were aghast at the testimony of Fiona Hill. From her senior position on the Russia desk at the National Security Council, Hill had witnessed Trump’s unfolding plot to hoodwink his way to reelection: a scheme in which U.S. diplomatic personnel, taking direction from campaign operative Rudy Giuliani, would extract from the government of Ukraine a public announcement that it was investigating Joe Biden. The sought-for inquiry of Trump’s political opponent was, Hill emphasized to the House Intelligence Committee, a “domestic political errand,” categorically distinct from “national security policy.”

Steven Simon was probably unfazed. In Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East, Simon, a former high-ranking national-security official, exhibits a carnival’s worth of venal politicians, careerist bureaucrats, and globetrotting chiselers who have instrumentalized the U.S. national security apparatus to their own ends. Where Hill delivered the news with sober intensity, Simon relishes exposing scoundrels and opportunists.

Yet Simon and Hill are not really so different. Alongside, it is fair to speculate, most foreign policy professionals, they hold fast to the conviction that there actually is some bright line to be crossed between national security and politics (to say nothing of gangsterism). National security can be politicized, of course, but this is a way of saying that national security itself is not political. Where politics is the stuff of ideologies and sentimental attachments, national security is the stuff of material interests: safety from foreign threats, and beneficial relations of trade. Interests, moreover, are pursued by means of strategy. Strategy does not always work; some strategists are lousy, some are ill-informed, and even the best-laid plans falter before a freak sandstorm crossing the deserts of Arabia. But whatever the content of strategy, its form is rational.

Grand Delusion has a curious tendency toward self-refutation.

In Grand Delusion, Simon seeks the strategy that went missing while agents of U.S. national security—heedless, stupid, corrupted by politics—pursued “a posture of imperial overreach” in the Middle East. The “race to dominate,” in this telling, begins with the Reagan administration’s 1982 incursion in Lebanon; careens into the 1990–1991 Gulf War, in which U.S.-led forces drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait’s oil fields; and muddles through that war’s 2003 successor and the subsequent occupation of Iraq before spluttering out with the 2011 Libya misadventure, after which U.S. militancy in the region begins to wane. (Afghanistan, mysteriously, is nigh absent.) Along the way, the United States negotiates deals between Israel and its enemies, runs enough guns to make an NRA camp counselor proud, sanctions Iraq to death, and signs and then trashes a nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran. Despite all the mistakes, lives lost, and money wasted, Simon decides that strategy won out: “Since the end of the Second World War,” he writes, “America’s overriding purpose in the Middle East has been to secure two states, Israel and Saudi Arabia,” both of which he believes America has good reasons to protect. “Despite the scorn heaped on U.S. policy for its serial blunders . . . Washington succeeded in accomplishing the[se] two goals.”

If this all seems a bit, well, impossible that is because Grand Delusion has a curious tendency toward self-refutation: on the one hand, the United States sought and then retreated from empire-building in the Middle East; on the other, it maintained only the modest goal of protecting two allies. As for the first Gulf War, after initially diagnosing imperialism, Simon decides that, in fact, the motivation was realpolitik: “There was no question,” he writes at one point, “that U.S. interests were threatened by a hostile power acquiring a very large share of regional oil production.” That U.S. policy has been the cause of extravagant suffering in the Middle East—and not only there—is undeniable, but the claim that the United States has tried to rule the Middle East is hard to defend, and Simon never really tries.

In another exemplary contradiction, Simon argues that the first Gulf War “engendered” the second—only to later deny this. Initially, he reasons that, by leaving in place the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, President George H. W. Bush ensured an eventual clash: Saddam would never comply with UN-mandated disarmament, nor would he accept ongoing surveillance by international weapons inspectors. Thus the 1998 eviction of the inspectors was inevitable, and with it the reemergence of an intolerable Iraqi threat. The September 11 attacks merely provided the pretext for a war that was bound to happen, as the second Bush White House forged (in both senses of the word) links in the public’s mind between Saddam and Osama Bin Laden while claiming the mantle of UN authority.

Except that, as Simon himself notes, the second invasion of Iraq was far from inevitable. The key underlying factor was a purely contingent one: the divine intervention of the Supreme Court on behalf of Bush, who, according to the voters, had lost the 2000 presidential election. “The role of accident is truly striking,” Simon concedes. “There is no one who believes that Gore would have responded to 9/11 by invading Iraq.” Hardly a page goes by without contradictions like these. At the absolute least, it is hard to place trust in such, shall we say, limber thinking.

Worse than the logical inconsistencies, however, is the logic that holds. As Simon runs through his chronology of greatest military flops, he keeps hinting at the strategic choice that eluded decision-makers ailing from bouts of politics. The first Bush administration, for instance, could have finished the job in Iraq by deposing Saddam Hussein, and the United States could have checked Iran by retaliating against the Tehran-backed Khobar Towers attack in 1996. Alas, politics intervened. The Israel-Palestine peace process was always doomed, but U.S. leaders pursued it because appearing to make an effort was politically expedient.

In short: Simon insists that reality must be wrong. Foreign policy can’t actually be just politics. The evidence indicates that foreign policy is a product of mutually reinforcing ideology and sentiment, and that much of foreign policy’s usefulness lies in fostering these in order to build domestic support. So damn the evidence.

Damn it and ignore it. Simon accomplishes the latter in part through periodization. He draws a historical rupture at the Lebanon invasion, on the grounds that this was the first time U.S. forces fired weapons in the Middle East. The resulting narrative privileges kinetic action and diplomatic machination as the whole of foreign policy, sidelining the political developments of the 1960s and 1970s that are essential for understanding the trajectory of the United States in the Middle East. Crucially, these developments occurred not at the level of rational strategizing over material interests but of mass publics who both generate and are moved by ideological and emotional appeals. I have in mind the emergence of the U.S. love affair with Israel and the evolution of the revolutionary movement that, in 1979, ejected the shah of Iran and replaced him with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Both demonstrate the foundational roles of sentiment and ideology in foreign policy, and the role of foreign policy in nurturing them.

A collage of two photos: an oil field fire and an abandoned highway strewn with destroyed vehicles.
Scenes from the first Gulf War. | Bryan Dorrough

As far as the close U.S. relationship with Israel goes, material interest has never been a wholly adequate explanation. Simon asserts that Israel was a useful American strategic partner during the Cold War, but his evidence is just that Israel often fought with enemies aligned with the Soviet Union. This alone, however, could not make Israel materially important to the United States, just as North Vietnam was not materially important to the United States simply because its national-liberation government had a red hue. Furthermore, U.S. financial and military support for Israel ramped up after détente with the Soviet Union and came at an obvious material cost. For instance, the U.S. resupply of the Israeli army during the 1973 war provoked OPEC’s oil embargo, which was highly detrimental to the U.S. economy. The Gulf oil states did their best to clarify which Middle East partnerships were materially useful to Americans. But the U.S. government, taking cues from the public, doubled down on support for Israel.

Americans had grown a soft spot for Israel in the preceding decade or so, not because Israel contributed to domestic security or prosperity, but for sentimental reasons. In the 1960s Americans “discovered” the Holocaust through the trial of Adolf Eichmann and books like While Six Million Died, which highlighted Americans’ moral debts to the world’s Jews, incurred while passively observing Nazi genocide. The Second Vatican Council in 1962–1965 gave Catholics dispensation to stop hating Jews. Aggressively public Israeli diplomacy led by then foreign minister Golda Meir, who had grown up in the United States and spoke American, positioned support for Israel as a so-called American value. And with East Jerusalem in Jewish hands after the 1967 war, American Protestants saw the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, which provided a religious rationale for investing in the new status quo. By 1979, Israel was prepared to acknowledge the effective advocacy of U.S. Christians by rewarding Jerry Falwell with a private jet and, the following year, a medal for “outstanding achievement.” The assassination of Robert Kennedy by a Palestinian, and the adoption of the Palestinian cause by Black nationalists, the American Indian Movement, and other reviled groups, ensured that the overwhelming majority would lean Israel’s way. The Cold War was also a factor, as the Soviets did support some of Israel’s enemies. But it would be a stretch to suggest that this counted against U.S. security or prosperity. Where Soviet action mattered was in persuading Americans that Israel must be on team USA.

While the oil embargo cemented the place of “Arabs” and Muslims in the matrix of American racism (during one of his many hyperrationalist fugues, Simon briefly recognizes this important truth before dismissing the whole episode as a “price correction”), Americans were becoming even more affectively attached to Israelis through popular-cultural appeals. There was the hugely influential 1978 miniseries Holocaust, and the 1976 Israeli hostage rescue at Entebbe, Uganda, which promptly spawned two TV movies that sealed Israel’s reputation as a daring underdog. Not incidentally, Israeli characters were played by white stars known for heroic roles, like Charles Bronson and Burt Lancaster. Americans did not watch these films and think, “U.S. interests would be well served by a strategic relationship with Israel.” What they thought was, “These are my kind of people.” Public favor was readily translated into policy. By this point, the Israel lobby—principally AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, with the help of Jewish and Christian Zionist allies—had the money and connections to get its way in Washington.

As for the Iranian Revolution, Simon waves his periodization wand, reducing it to the overthrow of a repressive leader. (A more strategically minded Carter administration would have protected the shah, we are told.) But the revolution was far more complex—a transnational intellectual and affective phenomenon that took seriously the ideological competition of the Cold War. The founders and chief influences of the revolutionary movement were Shia leaders in Iraq and Iran. Driven by fears of godless communism and its dreams of equality, which appealed to the impoverished Shia of these countries, many Islamists had a strongly anti-Soviet orientation. However, during the 1970s, they came to see themselves as not just fighting against communism but for a third way, neither liberal nor communist and based in a solidarity of the oppressed. As such, the revolution they nurtured aimed not just to oust a U.S.-subsidized despot but to realize a distinctive political theory that stirred activists across the global span of Shia Islam and postcolonial struggle.

The effect of Simon’s jumble of arguments is to reinforce the cult of strategy that matured during the Cold War.

This same vision was essential at least to the early foreign policy of Iranian clerical government, which sought to export the revolution through close ties with, for instance, Palestinian intellectuals and militants in Lebanon. This is why Iranians were so engaged in the political destabilization of that country, which the Reagan administration decided it had to respond to in 1982. In Grand Delusion’s telling, however, mass culture, mass movements, and ideologies play only bit parts in foreign policymaking. Simon brings up ideas—like the “democratic peace theory” peddled by Bush II–era neoconservatives—only to show how they get in the way of strategy.

The effect of Simon’s jumble of arguments is to reinforce the cult of strategy that matured during the Cold War. Nuclear proliferation was transformed into nuclear competition, insanity into calculation—until America “won” and thereby confirmed that there must really be a bright line between national security and politics. This is a framing that demotes to something like irrelevance the principles and feelings that underwrote the bipolar world and the nonaligned parties—beyond the superpowers and within them—that confounded it, specifically the attachments of mass publics to diverse ideals of equality and freedom.

Americans have been so inculcated in national security that many seem to have forgotten the Cold War’s intellectual and sentimental basis, unrelated to anything like strategy. Americans learned to fear leftists long before they learned to fear nuclear war. They learned from Gilded Age intellectuals like William Graham Sumner, who propounded neoliberalism avant la lettre: theories of freedom that justified corporate power and concentrated wealth at a time when labor unrest and inequality were in bountiful supply. They learned from famine in the communist East in the 1920s and 1930s, from the Spanish Civil War in which socialists committed atrocities against Christians, and from the anti-clerical Cristero War that followed full implementation of Mexico’s socialist-revolutionary constitution. From the alleged prominence of Jews among communist thinkers and activists. These and plenty other sources shaped the affective-ideological commitments that Cold War-era politics laundered as strategy.

It’s obvious that national security is not just political but that it is how politics gets done. Vladimir Putin didn’t invade Ukraine because Russian security demands it. He did it because invading Ukraine would stoke the Russian nationalist sentiment that undergirds loyalty to him—without, he hoped, picking a fair fight. His determination was precisely that Ukraine was not a security threat; that it was weak and unable to counter. George W. Bush reached the same conclusion before attacking his chosen enemy in 2003. His invasion of Iraq was the quintessential rally-around-the-leader campaign: a listless administration, dogged by illegitimacy, found purpose in the rocketing approval polls that greeted its post-9/11 tough-guy agenda. Iraq was an opportunity to perpetuate the momentum.

Adherents of the cult of national security flatter their own strategic cleverness by casting situations like these as evidence that foreign policy is compromised by politics. But theirs is a pitiful cry. They are the only ones who don’t know that foreign policy is politics.