Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Notably absent from this analysis, however, was any appreciation for context. Tucker and Ignotus alike showed no interest in the recent history of the Middle East. They ignored the dubious legacy of previous Western interventionism, especially by Great Britain, until recently the region’s imperial overlord. That the United States was willy-nilly supplanting the British as the dominant power in the Arab world and more broadly in the Greater Middle East ought to have given Americans pause. After all, the lessons to be taken from the British experience were almost entirely cautionary ones. That was not a baton that the Americans were grasping but a can of worms.
More astonishingly still, neither Tucker nor Ignotus showed any interest in religion or its political implications. Theirs was a thoroughly secular perspective. Islam, therefore, simply went unmentioned. Once having asserted direct control over Arab oil, Tucker and Ignotus took it for granted that U.S. troops would remain for years to come. Yet they were oblivious to the possibility that a protracted military occupation might encounter unforeseen snags, whether by violating local sensitivities or enmeshing the United States in ancient sectarian or ethnic disputes. In contemplating action, the United States routinely took into account the potential response of powerful adversaries like the Soviet Union. More often than not, it factored in the concerns of valued allies like West Germany or Japan. That a lesser country like Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia could obstruct or stymie a superpower was not a proposition that many Americans at this juncture were prepared to entertain. The policy prescriptions offered by Tucker and Ignotus reflected this view—even if the North Vietnamese had only recently exposed it as false.
This first round of proposals to militarize U.S. policy in the Middle East found little favor in the Pentagon. Ever since World War II, apart from the brief intervention in Lebanon that Dwight D. Eisenhower had ordered back in 1958—a virtually bloodless comma inserted between Korea and Vietnam—America’s military had by and large steered clear of the region, leaving it in the hands of diplomats and spooks.
Now, in the early 1970s, U.S. forces had their hands full with other concerns. The just-concluded American war in Vietnam had left the armed services, especially the U.S. Army, battered in body and spirit. Recovering from that unhappy ordeal was the order of the day. This meant re-equipping and adjusting to the end of the draft, priorities addressed with the Soviet threat very much in mind. The prospect of intervening in the Persian Gulf figured as exceedingly improbable. The idea of sending U.S. forces elsewhere in the wider Islamic world, to Afghanistan, say, or Somalia, appeared absurd.
So when Secretary of Defense Elliott Richardson released his annual report to Congress in April 1973, he evinced little interest in the Middle East and only perfunctory concern about energy security. The 126-page document devoted exactly one anodyne paragraph to each.
In the first, Richardson expressed his hope for an end to “the potentially explosive Arab-Israeli conflict.” He cited U.S. arms sales and its “limited military presence” as intended “to produce stability” and to encourage negotiations. Yet Richardson also made it clear that the core problem wasn’t Washington’s to solve: “Peace and stability will be possible only if all the parties involved develop a mutual interest in accommodation and restraint.”
In the second paragraph, while noting that the Persian Gulf contained “approximately one-half of the world’s proven oil reserves,” Richardson emphasized that the United States would look “primarily to the states in the area to maintain peace and stability.”
Pentagon priorities lay elsewhere.
A year later, in the wake of the October War and with Americans still reeling from the first oil shock, Richardson’s successor James R. Schlesinger made it clear that those priorities had not changed. The Pentagon remained fixated on the U.S.-Soviet competition. When the United States evaluated threats to national security, Schlesinger wrote, “We do so primarily with the Soviet Union in mind.”
His 237-page report reflected that priority. Apart from a brief reference to the lessons of the most recent Arab-Israeli conflict, which merely “confirmed prior judgments” about war, Schlesinger ignored the Middle East altogether. Under the heading of “planning contingencies,” the defense secretary identified Europe, Northeast Asia, and (surprisingly) Southeast Asia as places where U.S. forces could potentially fight. The oil-rich lands touched by the waters of the Persian Gulf didn’t make the cut.
The passing of a year brought yet another defense secretary but no real change in perspective. In November 1975 Donald Rumsfeld ascended to the post of Pentagon chief, which he held for only fourteen months, his tenure curtailed when Gerald Ford lost the 1976 presidential election. In January 1977, Rumsfeld’s annual report, issued as eight years of Republican rule were coming to an end, claimed credit over the course of more than three hundred pages for vastly improving U.S. military capabilities while simultaneously issuing dire warnings about the ever-increasing Soviet threat. In its competition with the Soviet Union, the United States was getting stronger and stronger while falling further and further behind.
For Rumsfeld too, therefore, the Middle East remained an afterthought. The United States had a “fundamental interest in uninterrupted access to Middle East oil and gas,” he acknowledged. But satisfying that interest was not going to entail the commitment of U.S. forces and was not going to absorb any substantial part of the Pentagon’s budget. The troops and the dollars were needed elsewhere. So Rumsfeld affirmed Washington’s preference for outsourcing the problem to “reliable friendly forces (for example Iran, Saudi Arabia, Morocco) capable of contributing to regional order.” Arming “friendly, important governments” that were themselves “striving to maintain peace and stability in the region” promised to suffice.
Through the mid-1970s, in other words, Pentagon strategic priorities remained unaffected by developments in and around the Persian Gulf. To hawkish observers like Robert Tucker, growing U.S. energy dependence along with the rise of OPEC might signify a “radical shift in power” and therefore require drastic action.
Those actually responsible for formulating U.S. national security policy didn’t see it that way. They shied away from addressing the implications of any such shift. All that was now about to change as Jimmy Carter became president.
In a world of nation-states, good will and good intentions will not suffice to achieve peace. Simply avoiding war—the minimalist definition of peace—implies a meeting of devious minds. In statecraft, calculation necessarily precedes concurrence.
Jimmy Carter saw himself as a peacemaker. On that score, there is no doubting the sincerity of his aspirations. He meant well—by no means the least among his many admirable qualities. Yet when it came to the exercise of power, Carter was insufficiently devious. He suffered from a want of that instinctive cunning that every successful statesman possesses in great abundance. Carter could be vain, petty, and thin-skinned—none of these posed a fatal defect. But he lacked guile, a vulnerability that, once discovered, his adversaries at home and abroad did not hesitate to exploit.
One direct consequence was to trigger a full-scale reordering of U.S. strategic interests. From a national security perspective, as never before, the Greater Middle East began to matter. From the end of World War II to 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in that region.
Within a decade, a great shift occurred. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere
in the Greater Middle East. President Carter neither intended nor foresaw that transformation—any more than European statesmen in the summer of 1914 intended or foresaw the horrors they were unleashing. But he, like they, can hardly be absolved of responsibility for what was to follow.
When Carter moved into the Oval Office in late January 1977, he inherited a mess. The previous decade and a half, punctuated by assassinations, racial unrest, cultural upheaval, the forced resignation of a president, and a costly, divisive war, had left Americans in something of a funk. That the economy was in a shambles didn’t help matters. U.S. power and influence seemed to be waning. The amoral machinations of Richard Nixon and his chief lieutenant Henry Kissinger—cutting deals with the Kremlin, toasting Red China’s murderous leaders, and abandoning the South Vietnamese to their fate—mocked the ideals that America ostensibly represented.
Like every new president, Carter promised to turn things around. He would be the un-Nixon. On the stump, he had repeatedly assured Americans, “I’ll never lie to you.” At a time when Washington seemed especially thick with liars, cheats, and thieves, this constituted a radical commitment. Carter took it upon himself to repair the nation’s moral compass. This defined what history had summoned him to do. In foreign policy, that meant aligning actions with words. The United States would once more stand for freedom. It would promote peace. It would advance the cause of universal human rights.
Doing these things required first overcoming what Carter called an “inordinate fear of communism” that had for too long found the United States crawling into bed with corrupt, repressive regimes and other unsavory elements. Unreasoned anticommunism had made Americans stupid and distorted U.S. policy. Shedding its self-imposed ideological shackles, Carter believed, would enable the United States to transcend the Cold War and pursue a course “designed to serve mankind.” In service to humanity, Carter envisioned a diplomatic agenda that was nothing if not ambitious. It involved alleviating Third World poverty, definitively resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, and “eliminating nuclear weapons completely from our arsenals of death.”
In no way did inaugurating a War for the Greater Middle East figure as part of that agenda. But hardly had the president embarked upon his saving mission than events began getting in the way. The most important of those events was the Iranian Revolution.
In the mid-1970s, Washington assumed that Iran could be counted on to serve as America’s steadfast and dependable surrogate in the Persian Gulf.
Although eliciting occasional grumbling, the assumption was largely noncontroversial. Yet it was foolish in the extreme, based on expectations that the Shah was politically secure and could be counted on to serve as a reliable proxy. Neither of these, however, turned out to be correct. Carter himself was oblivious to the possibility that the Shah might turn out to be a weak reed.
At a state dinner in Tehran on December 31, 1977, as such occasions require, Carter responded to a toast that the Shah had made in his honor. His effusive remarks, offered with cameras running, were destined for permanent inclusion in the Carter presidency blooper reel. Iran stood as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” Carter declared. “This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you.”
As events were soon to demonstrate, the president had significantly mischaracterized the relationship between the people of Iran and their monarch. Yet when Carter spoke, he was merely affirming existing U.S. policy. Washington had a lot riding on the Shah and did not want to see its investment go bad.
That investment dated from 1953, when the CIA helped engineer a coup that returned the young Shah to his throne while overthrowing a democratically elected Iranian government. It continued during the Cold War, with Washington offering the Shah substantial military and economic assistance in return for his strongly anticommunist stance. It culminated in 1969 with the Nixon Doctrine, a Vietnam-induced effort to reduce worldwide U.S. military obligations. Nixon proposed to deputize dependable allies to shoulder responsibility for maintaining regional security, thereby easing the burdens placed on the United States. With proxies recruited to do more, the United States could get by with doing less.
The Persian Gulf seemed the ideal place to put this concept into effect. By selling top-line American weapons to Iran, now flush with cash thanks to booming oil exports, President Richard Nixon was counting on the Shah to ensure stability in the gulf, taking over a role long performed by Great Britain until its 1968 decision to withdraw from “East of Suez.” At no time did the promotion of democracy and human rights figure in Washington’s Iranian agenda.
On that score at least, the authoritarian Shah certainly concurred. Otherwise, however, his purposes differed somewhat from Washington’s. He viewed military modernization as one part of a larger top-down effort to transform Iran into a modern, regionally dominant, but still autocratically governed powerhouse.
Still, if Nixon’s aims and the Shah’s ambitions did not “dovetail neatly,” as one
New York Times
dispatch suggested, they at least intersected.
As one immediate consequence, U.S. arms exports to Iran skyrocketed. Between 1950 and 1972, the United States had provided Iran with approximately $1.5 billion of weapons, the costs largely covered by grant aid. By 1973 Tehran had become a paying customer. That year alone, it agreed to
U.S. arms to the tune of more than $2 billion.
Over the next six years, Iran contracted to buy over $19 billion in weapons. Purchases included F-14 fighters, C-130 transport aircraft, and guided missile destroyers, plus helicopters, tanks, and air defense missiles.
In 1978, the now-besieged Iranian monarch presented Washington with a shopping list requesting an additional $12 billion in military hardware. The Shah did not get everything he requested—just almost everything. Indeed, after considerable wrangling, the United States even agreed to provide Iran with nuclear reactors, the Shah offering personal—if suspect—assurances that Iran had no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.
This was the precursor to the Iranian nuclear program destined in the twenty-first century to become a source of such controversy and concern.