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Q&A with Steven Simon, Professor of Practice in Middle East Studies

January 31, 2024

In Autumn 2023, Steven Simon joined the Jackson School for the academic year as Professor of Practice in Middle East Studies to teach and engage with the public on the U.S. and the Middle East. Most recently a Senior Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow in International Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is an award-winning book author, former U.S. National Security Council member and diplomat, and has been widely published in, and interviewed by, the media. On October 19, 2023, the Jackson School and Middle East Center hosted a public talk by Simon titled, “The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East.” Watch the video

Steven Simon

Steven Simon

Jackson School: It’s your first time living here in Seattle. What are you looking forward to?
Steven Simon: I’m a New Yorker, went to college in New York and live in coastal Maine. So, even though I’ve visited Seattle, it’ll be a new experience. But I expect the campus to be the focus while I’m at UW.

Jackson School: What is a highlight of your career experience?
S.S.: Two things: One has been the opportunity to see how policy comes together at the White House, especially during crises. The other, as part of a team at RAND Corporation, was participating in a project on the requirements for a successful Palestinian state and a plan for creating new infrastructure mainly on the West Bank. This was quite a departure for me, since I’d most worked on security issues, and it spurred an interest in political economy that eventually reshaped my curricular focus.

 Jackson School: What is a common misconception of the Middle East?
S.S.: The Middle East is somehow a passive recipient of what outside powers dish out. That’s a pretty common mistake and has led to bad policy. It’s the notion that Middle Easterners have no agency.

Jackson School: What is your recommended book for policymakers?
S.S.: One I particularly like about U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East is the British scholar Lawrence Freedman’s “A Choice of Enemies.” Greg Gauses’s “Oil Monarchies” is still indispensable. But on the whole, I think it’s got to be Melanie Cammett’s recasting of Richards’ and Waterbury’s Political Economy of the Middle East.

Jackson School: Tell us about your new book.
S.S.: My new book, “Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East” (Penguin Press, 2023) attempts to explain an anomalous period of U.S. involvement in the Middle East from the Islamic Revolution in Iran to the present day – a period of intensive engagement and military intervention, punctuated wars and of course 9/11. The Obama Administration began to wind all this down, and it looks like his successors are following in his footsteps. The narrative blends my own experience during this period with archival evidence, interviews, memoirs, and an array of secondary sources. It’s meant to be social science masquerading as a gripping story.

Jackson School: What did your autumn course on the U.S. and Middle East cover?
S.S.: The United States’ first experience of the Middle East was of war in the early 19th Century. Until WW I relations were about religion, rum and opium, and arms sales. Between then and 1980, the U.S. was mostly content to let other powers rule the region. The U.S. then embarked on a series of interventions that lasted nearly 40 years, cost trillions, killed hundreds of thousands, and subsided only recently. This course explored why and how this happened.

Jackson School: Why study the Middle East?
S.S.: One’s interests are naturally idiosyncratic. The region, its peoples, cultures and politics are intrinsically interesting without regard any specific application. (I got into it through graduate work on the Roman Near East.) Of course, for Jackson School students interested in NGO’s, multilateral institutions, government service, there’s a compelling practical reason to study it. Despite the U.S. pivot to Asia, the Middle East will continue to preoccupy policy makers and NGOs and there’ll be a need for people with regional expertise who can also do policy analysis. Bottom line, if the Middle East is interesting to you, go for it.

Jackson School: Tell us why you are excited to teach at the Jackson School.
S.S.: Public policy schools are important, and there aren’t enough of them especially given the challenges the U.S. faces right now. So, teaching at the Jackson School checks two boxes for me: First, public service insofar as I can help students get into the policy world, whether in the US government, NGOs or multilateral institutions, and do good work once they’re there; second, it’s exciting to be working alongside such an amazing faculty whose interests mesh with mine and who are leading authorities in their respective disciplines.

In Spring 2024, Steven Simon will teach two courses, “The Middle East in the Modern World” (JSIS A 402; JSIS 587) and “U.S. National Security” (JSIS B 321; JSIS B 536).