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The Curious Ascent of Simone Ledeen

The Pentagon’s new Middle East honcho is protege and progeny of neocon godfather Michael Ledeen.

WASHINGTON– Iran, not Iraq, is the real problem.

“When you hear ‘Al Qaeda, … it’s probably wise to think ‘Iran.’” Most insurgents in Iraq are “under Iranian guidance and/or control.” The 1998 bombings of African U.S. Embassies “were in large part Iranian operations.”  Iran had a hand in 9/11. “The time for diplomacy is at the end; it is time for a free Iran, free Syria and free Lebanon,” the latter two Iranian pawns. “Change above all violent change ­is the essence of human history.” Creative destruction “is our middle name. We do it automatically … it is time once again to export the democratic revolution.” Total war, a phrase made infamous by Goebbels, is justly on the horizon. Sparing “civilian lives cannot be the total war’s first priority … The purpose of total war is to permanently force your will onto another people.”

These are the words, in the mid-2000s, of a writer named Michael Ledeen, a former consultant to the Departments of State and Defense, as well as the National Security Council. He was resident at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute at the height of its powers, in the early 2000’s, as the nation was gripped by war fever. In 2003, it was written that “Ledeen’s ideas are quoted daily by such figures as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.” 

In Washington, the power elite had become the company it kept. His thinking is a relic of a mindspace, quietly pervasive in the capital, that held that invading Iraq was just the beginning, a low-hanging fruit for a whole rotten basket. Some officials quietly urged Washington not to take its eye off the ball, and confront Iran first. But it was assured, as it has now been for forty years since the revolution, that the end was nigh for the mullahs in Tehran.  

It’s worth pondering a legacy such as Ledeen’s, as he lounges in semi-retirement. His daughter, Simone Ledeen, has just been named deputy assistant secretary of defense (DASD) for the Middle East, or, Secretary Mark Esper’s point woman on the planet’s most troubled theater. 

As Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) correctly points out, attacking a perhaps imprecise original report by POLITICO: “Simone Ledeen has worked at the Pentagon & Treasury and at a major bank. Exactly what we should want for such a position. And yet, the big scoop here is ‘she is the daughter of’ — as if she is not her own person.” Of course, Schanzer didn’t point out that Ledeen’s father is still a fellow at FDD. But, of course, descendants are not destiny, and Ms. Ledeen deserves an appraisal independent of her famous father.

So let’s take a look at her record. 

Ledeen, an MBA with a background in finance, served as an advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the viceroy administration that ran Iraq in the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s toppling. In the pages of National Review at the time, Ledeen attacked the Times’ Paul Krugman for crying nepotism. “Instead of trying to find out who my colleagues and I really are and what we did in Iraq, Krugman created a fantasy world in which unqualified people got great jobs because they were children of celebrated or powerful Washington insiders,” she wrote, saying some her colleagues were Gore voters, President Bush’s opponent in 2000, and that he had her own C.V., including work in eastern Europe. “I was part of a team trying to repair an unbelievably broken system,” she said, and no doubt she was, though she didn’t dwell on the matter of who helped further break that system. And ten years before Islamic State swept over much of Iraq, Ledeen wrote: “The system is now up and running.” Curiously, Ms. Ledeen now leaves this experience off her public resume, now that she serves a Republican president who got elected saying Iraq was a “big, fat mistake.”

Ledeen served the U.S. government for the next ten years, before leaving for the private sector, where her story again gets interesting. Ledeen had worked in Afghanistan with Gen. Michael Flynn, who would become scourge of the Obama administration and later President Trump’s first, short-lived national security advisor. Simone Ledeen’s advisory role to Flynn would overlap with that of her father’s. Michael Ledeen would go on to co-author Flynn’s first book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies, released in the heady days of summer 2016. I read it at the time and the book is a real page-turner, because it’s hard to look away from unproven assertions that “the war is on,” as Flynn and Leedeen write, “We face a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.” 

Revanchist Russia, Communist China and Islamist Iran are all very much in league, it’s posited. The authors assert a scene straight out of Team America: World Police, with Iran serving as the “linchpin” of an anti-American alliance that obviously exists. David Frum’s “axis of evil” became Ledeen and Flynn’s death star. Ledeen’s daughter was no co-author, but by serving as aide to Flynn, she sure did make it confusing. Inferring that she’s at least a fellow traveler I think is no great crime.

General Flynn’s continued popularity on the MAGA right is a political shield, for Simone Ledeen, and perhaps, her father. General Flynn’s fall from grace is a tragic one, and the president should perhaps consider a pardon for a man who has given much to his country.

But Trump shouldn’t pardon the general for his overheated views, the chemtrails of foreign policy thinking– the type of discredited nonsense the president got elected excoriating. Trump backer billionaire Peter Thiel continues to defend his support of the president on a compelling basis: Trump hasn’t plunged America into new Middle Eastern wars, as his two immediate predecessors did. As Thiel said of the past generation of leadership, in his speech to the Republican National Convention: “Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East. … On this important issue, Donald Trump is right.”  

Why should we care? Well, it’s now Simone Ledeen’s turn in the barrel. She, indeed, gets a chance to write her own legacy. 

“I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea,” President Trump wrote Wednesday. The Middle East isn’t going anywhere. In fact, with an ugly oil shock, it’s poised to get somehow worse. The United States could well blunder into a fourth miserable decade there. 

There are, perhaps at last, hopeful signs out of an administration now besieged by the fallout of Coronavirus. The crisis is a moment to finally, pull back back significantly from the theater. In this respect, Trump could be a Reagan, not a Bush, in prudently acknowledging sunk costs, as he did when he left Lebanon. There is a blueprint for a better way, with rival calls for realism and restraint after an epoch of failure. The electorate cries out for it– as the U.S. has elected Iraq war opponents in three successive presidential elections. Obsession with Iran is an extremist movement, with its adherents residing most inside the Beltway. As Washington’s now-empty streets attest, the American government has more preeminent challenges.  It should be the job of Trump’s lieutenants, Ledeen included, to steer the president toward his better angels, not triple down on the mistakes of the past. 

So let’s hope what’s past isn’t prologue.



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