The Carter Doctrine: A Middle East strategy past its prime
Our creaky, 30-year-old vision of America’s role is ripe for an overhaul from the next president.
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Cops say they figure out a suspect’s intentions by watching his hands, not by listening to what comes out of his mouth. The same goes for American foreign policy. Whatever Washington may be saying about its global priorities, America’s hands tend to be occupied in the Middle East, site of all America’s major wars since Vietnam and the target of most of its foreign aid and diplomatic energy.
How to handle the Middle East has become a major point in the presidential campaign, with President Obama arguing for flexibility, patience, and a long menu of options, and challenger Mitt Romney promising a tougher, more consistent approach backed by open-ended military force.
Lurking behind the debate over tactics and approach, however, is a challenge rarely mentioned. The broad strategy that underlies American policy in the region, the Carter Doctrine, is now more than 30 years old, and in dire need of an overhaul. Issued in 1980 and expanded by presidents from both parties, the Carter doctrine now drives American engagement in a Middle East that looks far different from the region for which it was invented.
President Jimmy Carter confronted another time of great turmoil in the region. The US-supported Shah had fallen in Iran, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and anti-Americanism was flaring, with US embassies attacked and burned. His new doctrine declared a fundamental shift. Because of the importance of oil, security in the Persian Gulf would henceforth be considered a fundamental American interest. The United States committed itself to using any means, including military force, to prevent other powers from establishing hegemony over the Gulf. In the same way that the Truman Doctrine and NATO bound America’s security to Europe’s after World War II, the Carter Doctrine elevated a crowded and contested Middle Eastern shipping lane to nearly the same status as American territory.
The consequences have been profound. Every conflict in the Gulf since (and there has been a constant supply) has involved the United States. Our Navy patrols its waters, in constant tension with Iran; our need for bases there has persuaded us to support otherwise noxious leaders. The Carter Doctrine has driven the US fixation on stability among Arab regimes and Washington’s micromanagement of Israel’s relations with its neighbors. The entire world enjoys the same oil prices when they’re low and stable, but the United States carries almost all of the increasingly unsustainable cost of securing the Gulf.
As difficult as it can be to imagine a fresh approach to such a complex web of alliances and conflicts, the next administration will enjoy a tool that Carter lacked: the insights gained from three decades of sustained, intimate, and often frustrating direct involvement in the region. Hundreds of thousands of American combat troops have done tours in the Middle East, diplomats and politicians have deeply involved themselves in US policy there, and Washington has spent billions of dollars in the process.
In 2012, we look back on a recent level of American engagement with the Middle East never seen before. Even the failures have been failures from which we can learn. The decade that began with the US invasion of Afghanistan and ended with a civil war in Syria holds some transformative lessons, ones that could point the next president toward a new strategy far better suited to what the modern Middle East actually looks like—and to America’s own values.
P resident Carter issued his new doctrine in what would turn out to be his final State of the Union speech in January 1980. America had been shaken by the oil shocks of the 1970s, in which the Arab-dominated OPEC asserted its control, and also by the fall of the tyrannical Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, who had been a stalwart security partner to the United States and Israel.
Nearly everyone in America and most Western economies shared Carter’s immediate goal of protecting the free flow of oil. What was significant was the path he chose to accomplish it. Carter asserted that the United States would take direct charge of security in this turbulent part of the world, rather than take the more indirect, diplomatic approach of balancing regional powers against each other and intervening through proxies and allies. It was the doctrine of a micromanager looking to prevent the next crisis.
Carter’s focus on oil unquestionably made sense, and the doctrine proved effective in the short term. Despite more war and instability in the Middle East, America was insulated from oil shocks and able to begin a long period of economic growth, in part predicated on cheap petrochemicals. But in declaring the Gulf region an American priority, it effectively tied us to a single patch of real estate, a shallow waterway the same size as Oregon, even when it was tangential, or at times inimical, to our greater goal of energy security. The result has been an ever-increasing American investment in the security architecture of the Persian Gulf, from putting US flags on foreign tankers during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, to assembling a huge network of bases after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, to the outright regime-building effort of the Iraq War.Continued...