Book Review: Grand Delusion; the Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Book Review

Steven Simon.  Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East (New York: Penguin Press), 2023.

“Grand Delusion” by Steven Simon provides a timely analysis of the dynamics that shaped American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era in the Middle East.

The major theme of “Grand Delusion” revolves around the notion that American policymakers suffered from a persistent delusion that military force alone can bring about sustainable change and security in the complex web of Middle Eastern conflicts.

In the last five decades, American involvement in the region revolved around many areas considered vital for American national security interests.  In the early phase, containment of Soviet Union was major area of concern.  The U.S. sought to prevent the spread of communism and Soviet influence in the region, leading to increased military and economic aid to countries perceived as strategically important allies, such as Turkey and Iran.

One key element of American policy is energy security of vast oil reserves of the region. This led to close alliances with oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, and efforts to maintain stability in the region to protect American interests.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 had a profound impact on American foreign policy in the Middle East. The U.S. recognized Israel and became one of its major supporters, providing military aid, economic assistance, and diplomatic backing. This support for Israel, however, strained relations with all Arab nations both conservative monarchies and Arab nationalists led by charismatic leader Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. The American support of Israel was the single most important factor in the rise of anti-American sentiment among ruling elite as well as Arab street.  Even to this day, America has not overcome this handicap.

The Persian puzzle went through two extremes where in first phase, Iran under  the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was key American ally and in the second phase, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 became a virulent anti-American foe. Iranian clerics and Sunni Islamists are now holding high the flag of anti-Americanism in the region once held by Arab nationalists in cooperation with Soviet Communists.

In the post-9/11 era, war in Iraq in 2003 radically changed the dynamics of the region.  This was followed by haphazard engagements in Libya and Syria that created problems worse than the original nuisance. These actions unleashed the demons that American policy makers could not comprehend let alone control.

Simon highlights these key historical turning points and decision-making processes. He also gives a glimpse of internal debates and diverging views about any given policy in the White House, Departments of State and Defense, intelligence community and Congress. This aspect is often missed by foreign observers of American policies. Simon in addition to his personal experience also used interviews, academic studies, and government documents. This makes the book a well-informed critique rather than a personal opinion.

The book at times seem a historical narrative of events related to American policy in the Middle East with little in depth analysis and author’s own views about the issue.  Simon sometimes simplifies complex historical events and dynamics in the Middle East. This simplification can limit the depth of analysis and fail to capture the full complexity of the challenges facing American policymakers. To be fair to him, the Byzantine intrigues of the region can defy many conventional notions.

Simon correctly points to the major flaw of American policy of relying more on the military and a long catalogue of failures due to this approach but do not offer any alternative solutions. In fact, any viable alternative will have its own set of consequences.

American foreign policy in the Middle East is complex and multifaceted, influenced by a multitude of factors and evolving regional dynamics. American policy is not linear but underwent significant shifts and transformations. A more comprehensive examination would have considered the role of regional actors, cultural nuances, and historical contexts, providing a more holistic understanding of the challenges faced by the United States.

One factor often missed by most diplomats and analysts is the role of local players in influencing American policy to advance their own interests. Local players are not mere bystanders but actively engaged in advancing their own interests. They take full advantage of American hubris. Israelis have done extremely well in view of influential American Jewish diaspora and a well-organized infrastructure.  Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar have markedly improved their game in the last two decades and reaping the benefits of these efforts. Ron Suskind in his book The Way of The World has very neatly summed up the dilemma by stating that “The United States often loses its shirt in the back rooms of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia because it can’t fathom what’s happening under the table.  Sometimes it’s matter of misreading regional issues or long-standing disputes; sometimes the regional players secretly ally against the interloper and set traps to doom U.S. initiatives and pick American wallet clean.”

Readers can find some answers to the questions raised by Simon by reading Andrew Bacevich’s book The Limits of Power. No piece of geography is a clean slate where one, no matter how mighty, can write what he wants.  The Middle East is inhabited by living thinking human beings; descendants of thousands of years old civilizations who have survived wars, defeats, conquests, and exiles. They have their own hopes, fears and prejudices that guide their actions. Their own actions will determine their future and outsiders whether Great Britain in the past, United States at present or China in the future will have a limited role in shaping the region in their own image.

Two decades of war, with a price tag of $5-7 trillion, 7’000 uniformed and 8’000 civilian contractors dead, 32’000 wounded in action, 30’000 suicides by active duty and veterans in addition to countless non-American dead as it is not fashionable to count non-American dead bodies should make a sober analysis of what America gained from this painful investment. If not any high moral or ethical standard but simple self interest should keep this ledger on the table when a policy maker decides on use of military force.

Very little attention is paid to the ‘human dimension’ of any given policy that cannot be neatly predicted or categorized, but it is this factor that is instrumental in the outcome of any given policy.

“The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late”.  Reinhold Niebuhr

Hamid Hussain

21 June 2023

Defence Journal, July 2023

Published by

Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

Brown Pundits