Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East

Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East

An expert American foreign policy insider’s comprehensive account of US involvement in the Middle East from the Carter Administration to present day. Author Steven Simon is a former United States National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, and previously served as the Executive Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)-US, and Corresponding Director IISS-Middle East, and as a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute based in Washington, D.C. He was Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and is now a visiting professor at Colby College in Maine--which makes him eminently qualified to write this tome. And what a piece of work this is!

Grand Delusion is an ambitious exploration of the complexities surrounding US foreign policy in the Middle East. Simon delves into the historical context and contemporary challenges faced by the United States, providing readers with a thought-provoking analysis. Not one to pull punches, Simon soberly gives readers the inside scoop on the ambitions and motivations of an America bent on preserving peace and oil resources in what became a hostile hotbed for naked aggression and terrorism, while also trying to instill democratic values in cultures that mostly find such forms of governance foreign to tradition. As Simon argues, President Reagan really began the deepening US involvement and President Obama began the bookending process of real withdrawal. In between were tumultuous years of war and sacrifice as each president tried to find solutions and disentangle the US.  

Strengths of this book, in my opinion, include the following:

  1. Depth of Analysis: Simon's expertise and experience in the field shine through in his comprehensive analysis. He offers a deep historical understanding of the Middle East, tracing the roots of the challenges faced by the United States. This historical context is crucial for readers seeking a nuanced understanding of the region's complexities.
  2. Thought-Provoking Insights: The book challenges conventional wisdom and presents alternative perspectives on US foreign policy. Simon skillfully examines the underlying assumptions and ideologies that have shaped American decision-making, forcing readers to question long-held beliefs. His insights encourage critical thinking and provide a valuable contribution to the ongoing discourse surrounding US-Middle East relations.
  3. Accessible Writing Style: Despite the complexity of the subject matter, Simon manages to maintain a readable and engaging writing style. He avoids excessive jargon and presents his arguments in a clear and concise manner, making the book accessible to both experts and general readers.

Weaknesses of the book, in my opinion, are as follows:

  1. Lack of Policy Recommendations: While Simon thoroughly dissects past failures and provides a detailed analysis of the challenges faced by the United States, the book falls short in offering concrete policy prescriptions. Readers looking for a roadmap or a clear path forward may feel unsatisfied with the absence of actionable recommendations.
  2. Limited Diverse Perspectives: Although Simon acknowledges the existence of diverse viewpoints within the Middle East, the book primarily focuses on the American perspective. While understandable given the book's purpose, it would have been valuable to explore the perspectives of other regional actors, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand.
  3. Repetition and Lengthy Exposition: At times, Simon's arguments and examples are reiterated, resulting in repetitive sections that could have been streamlined. Additionally, the book could benefit from tighter editing to reduce its length and improve its overall flow.

Despite these weaknesses, National Security strategists and scholars will find this work very useful in their own studies on how to, and how not to, craft useful policy and strategy objectives. Grand Delusion explores the motivations, strategies, and shortcomings of each presidential administration, exposing a web of intertwined events—from Lebanese civil conflict to shifting Iranian domestic politics, Cold War rivalries, and Saudi Arabia’s quest for security to 9/11 and the war on terror—managed by a Washington policy process frequently ruled by wishful thinking and partisan politics. Grand Delusion reveals the fact that, while episodically impressive, US involvement was often tragic and at times dishonorable. Grand Delusion is a commendable work that challenges readers to critically examine US foreign policy in the Middle East. Steven Simon's expertise and insightful analysis contribute to a richer understanding of the historical roots and contemporary challenges faced by the United States. It remains a worthwhile read for those interested in the complexities of US-Middle East relations and the broader implications for global politics. Ultimately, this is an essential book and cautionary history illuminating America's propensity for misadventure at a moment when the nation is redefining its engagement in the face of a new Cold War.


Brigadier General, USAF (Retired) Chad Manske was the former Commandant of National War College, is a prolific reader, author and publisher of dozens of book reviews and articles, and is the Special Advisor to the NDU Foundation CEO (