President Barack Obama’s National Security Council adviser overseeing the Middle East and North Africa is leaving the administration, adding to the turnover of officials who handle foreign policy and security.
Steven Simon’s departure follows Obama’s nomination of John Brennan, his counterterrorism adviser, to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough is in line to become White House chief of staff to replace Jack Lew, Obama’s choice as the next Treasury secretary.
Simon is returning to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the London-based policy institute announced today. The White House hasn’t named a replacement.
While administration changes at the start of a president’s second term are typical, the national security staff openings come as the U.S. is managing the consequences of France’s intervention in Mali to block a jihadist takeover and the Algerian hostage-taking. Other challenges include the situation in Syria, Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, and Israeli elections that returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to office with a weaker mandate.
Obama also will have new secretaries of state and defense. He has nominated Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, to lead the State Department and former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to run the Pentagon.
Colin Kahl, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy institute, and a former Obama deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said such turnover is “not at all unusual” between a first and second term. New challenges in the Middle East and North Africa won’t affect the pace of change, he said.
“While there’s a lot going on in the region there’s always a lot going on in the region,” he said.
Kahl said it’s too soon to say whether foreign policy decision-making might shift to the state and defense departments from the National Security Council with the nominations of Kerry and Hagel.
“In this administration, history suggests that foreign policy is very much directed out of the White House,” he said.
Simon has held the NSC post since 2011, replacing Dan Shapiro, who became U.S. ambassador to Israel.
The institute said Simon will serve as director of the group’s U.S. operations and corresponding director of Middle East operations, beginning Jan. 28. He previously worked for the State Department, Council on Foreign Relations and RAND Corporation and taught at Princeton and Georgetown universities.
While Simon’s post has been “very important” because of the geography it encompasses, Kahl said, McDonough also played a strong role in shaping administration responses to challenges in the region. Assuming McDonough leaves his job to become become chief of staff, Kahl said, “Having a smooth transition at the deputy national security adviser position is particularly important.”