Illustration by Andrew MartinThe 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.” 

Steven Simon
“He's so smart you don't think he makes mistakes,” says one student of Steven Simon. The professor is just like the rest of us, though.

Simon wondered if round-the-clock surveillance drones were an alternative. “But we need a plan that frames the surveillance in a way that short-circuits liberals who flip out about privacy and civil liberties,” he suggested.

Izabella Czejdo wondered if this was premature. She’s another Mount Holyoke student and here played the chair of the joint chiefs. “There’s something strange,” she said, “in that the missiles have to be operated by two people, yet we found them set up with no operators. Maybe they’re more a symbol of warning.”

The council continued to weigh various theories and options, with Simon pushing them to see past faulty assumptions. Then he assigned homework: “I expect you all to put these recommendations together in a combined memo for the president.”

After class, I asked the council members what it was like to role-play with someone who did this for real. Terrifying at first, the students agreed, but Simon created a friendly backdrop: the class was invited to the professor’s home several times to share pizza and watch movies, including the Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove.

Ralph Skinner ’20, the secretary of state that day, said of Simon: “He’s so smart you don’t think he makes mistakes. But he told us about the meetings he was at after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He jumped to the assumption it was a foreign actor like Hezbollah. I thought showing that vulnerability was really cool, because we all make mistakes.”

Czejdo chimed in: “I’m wrong much more than I’m right in this class.” Everyone nodded in solidarity. And because each scenario is based on current, actual events, “we all feverishly read the news now,” she said, “because that could change our recommendations to the president.”

Photo & Illustration Credit: Photo: courtesy Steven Simon; illustration: Andy Martin