The Trump administration recently appointed Simone Ledeen as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, the first woman in the position for at least 10 years.
Her appointment reverses a trend of male appointees in that position which persisted throughout the Obama administration — despite critics’ efforts to paint President Donald Trump as anti-women.
Much of the establishment media coverage of Ledeen has focused not on her own qualifications but on her parents, who both have longtime careers in Washington, without acknowledging Ledeen’s considerable experience and expertise on the Middle East.
In her late-twenties, she served in Iraq, during the first George W. Bush administration, as an adviser to the Iraqi government with the Coalition Provisional Authority. There, she gained a deep understanding of the culture of corruption that plagued Iraq. In 2004, she wrote in National Review:
One of the greatest challenges we faced was the reluctance of Iraqis to disburse funds. Under the old regime, government employees were rewarded for withholding funds and punished – sometimes even executed – for spending money. This structure allowed regime loyalists to live in giant mansions surrounded by man-made lakes, while the average Iraqi suffered through summers without running water. These attitudes had to be immediately and drastically corrected.
Ledeen also learned the painful lessons of war on the lives and families of those who fought it. She wrote, again in 2004, about visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed and the sacrifices troops and their families had made:
For me, spending time with our troops at Walter Reed is very personal. I think about all the convoys I rode in all those months to and from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance. All those hours our escorts sat out in front of the ministry, waiting for us to finish our work. I frequently wondered, “Why is my life worth more than theirs? Why do I get to be protected by these young, beautiful men who have their whole lives in front of them? What makes me so special?” I came to see it was the work I was doing that was important. So every time–every single time I went–their presence motivated me to get more done, to push the Iraqis to work harder. Because if someone was going to die that day, I wanted it to have some meaning.
During her time at the Pentagon from 2004 to 2009, she served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
She then became the Treasury Department’s representative to the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan, working with then-Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and as a top adviser to then-Gen. Stanley McChrystal. She helped the department start its cell to go after terrorist financing.
Ledeen then worked in the private sector, as executive director at Standard Chartered Bank, where she launched the bank’s multinational financial crime compliance program in Africa, the Middle East, and Pakistan.
In 2019, Ledeen returned to the Pentagon to join the Trump administration, first serving as principal director to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, and now as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East.
Ledeen’s mother is Barbara Ledeen, a senior staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her father, Michael Ledeen, is a conservative historian who served during the Reagan administration. But friends of Ledeen say she has always been her own person.
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. https://t.co/771umPtkE2
— Jonathan Schanzer (@JSchanzer) April 17, 2020
Army Col. (Ret.) Robert Stavnes said he first met Ledeen in late 2005 at Camp Eggers in Afghanistan when they worked in the strategy and plans shop.
“Simone came into the plans shop, went to work with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, to generate revenue for the Afghanistan government,” he said.
Stavnes said her job was to create revenue from legitimate cargo crossing the Afghanistan borders, which included fuel, kerosene, food stocks, and other consumer goods. He added that many such goods came in “on the back of a donkey.”
“It was a lawless frontier… corruption was a way of life for most of those folks out there,” he added. “Warlords weren’t about to give up their cut without a fight.”
He said Ledeen fit right into the plans shop. “It was a great section, with great teammates, who came in from all walks of life,” he said. “Hardship has a way of forging a team.”
No one knew who her parents were, at least for a while, Stavnes said. “She was just a member of the team.”
“She’s a talented person who cares deeply about the people she serves with,” he added. “She’s a great teammate and someone you can count on.”
Wade Ishimoto, a legendary retired Army Special Forces officer and Delta Force member, was a mentor to Ledeen when he worked at the Pentagon as the senior adviser to the assistant secretary of defense for special operations during the second Bush administration.
He said Ledeen first arrived at the Pentagon as a presidential management fellow in 2003.
“She proved herself to be very capable, very hardworking, very insightful, an excellent writer and thinker,” Ishimoto said. “She took advice very well, so it was a pleasure mentoring her.”
“She gets along very well with people, and has an even-tempered personality,” he added.
She became involved in the Helping Our Heroes Foundation he started to advocate for wounded warriors. “Simone rolled up her sleeves and got involved with that, that generally required once a week visits to Walter Reed,” according to Ishimoto.
Ledeen’s two brothers both served as Marines.
Other friends and officials echoed their remarks.
A friend of Ledeen and her former coworker at the Treasury Department described her on background as “very highly regarded.”
“She’s smart, confident, and knows exactly who she is,” the friend said.
Due to her extensive experience in the Middle East, Ledeen knows how to hold her own with military leaders at the Pentagon, her friend added. “She’s tough as nails.”
At the same time, Ledeen has also tried to help other women at the male-dominated Pentagon, by hosting lunches for younger female staff.
A senior Trump administration official on background said on background, “She’s been working in the Middle East since 9/11. She’s very focused on combating Iranian activities in the Middle East.”
“She’s very well-liked by people within [Special Operations Command],” the official said. “She’s very loyal to the president.”