The breakfast burritos are tasty on Air Force One. Bill Clinton loves a good pun. And no matter how expert you are, you can be dead wrong. That’s the kind of insider knowledge Steven Simon shared last semester with students in his history class “National Security Decision Making.”
Simon himself helped make plenty of decisions on the National Security Council. Under Clinton, he was senior director for transnational threats. In the Obama years, he was senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs.
These days, Simon is a visiting professor of history at Amherst. In this course, his students role-played their own NSC meetings, working through an urgent situation, with Simon as the intense reality check. For each scenario, the students took turns playing the big parts: chair of the joint chiefs of staff, director of homeland security, secretary of state.
One spring day in a classroom in Fayerweather, Simon cooked up this scenario: On a routine patrol of the perimeter of Newark International Airport, a Stinger operational missile was found in the weeds. The FBI and TSA searched other airport peripheries and found Stingers at O’Hare, LAX, Dulles and elsewhere. (This actually happened at London’s Heathrow airport.)
Should military forces move into the airports? Five students had to decide.
In response, Simon told the class, the NSC had convened the Principals Committee. This was a small class—just five students—but they took the Stinger threat as seriously as if they were method actors. Some even channeled D.C. fashion statements for the meeting, with men wearing neckties, women strands of pearls.
“Let’s start with the intel briefing and decide where to go from there,” said Simon. The National Security Agency director, a.k.a. Mount Holyoke senior Arielle Tait, started things off, laying out ideas for who might have planted the missiles. It could be Jaysh al-Islam, a group of Islamist rebels involved in the Syrian Civil War, or white supremacists in Alabama.
Should military forces move into the airports? The secretary of defense, a.k.a. Nate Silvea ’20, was reluctant: “We have to take into account what this redirecting of resources places on the U.S. military. It could reduce our ability in other theaters.”