Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Skyrocketing arms sales increased the number of Americans living in Iran. By 1978, the U.S. military mission in Tehran, which facilitated arms transfers and coordinated training support for Iranian forces, consisted of 1,122 personnel. In addition, some forty thousand American civilians worked in Iran as employees of U.S.-based defense contractors. The Grumman Corporation kept one thousand engineers and technicians in Iran to maintain Iranian air force F-14s. Northrop provided a similar contingent to support Iran’s F-5 squadrons. Bell Helicopter’s presence consisted of over 1,500 employees working under the direction of a retired U.S. Army major general.
This was not unusual—weapons manufacturers active in Iran and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf offered lucrative opportunities for former military officers.
Other high-profile defense firms with a major Iranian presence included General Electric, Hughes, Lockheed, McDonnell-Douglas, Raytheon, Rockwell, and TRW. Although some in Congress expressed concern that the United States—far and away the world’s leading weapons exporter—might be fueling a Middle East arms race, most members found little reason to complain about this boon to the American military-industrial complex.
Back in Washington, State and Defense Department officials calculated that the Iranian military’s reliance on American expertise and technical assistance translated into leverage. In outsourcing security, the Nixon Doctrine assumed that America’s chosen partners could be counted on to act in ways that were consistent with Washington’s desires. Should they do otherwise, a threat to suspend U.S. communications, intelligence, and logistics support would bring them to heel.
More than likely, Iranian awareness of their dependence would alone suffice.
The Shah himself entertained the opposite view. The Americans sold weapons to Iran, he believed, because Iran was performing a critical security function that the United States was unable or unwilling to perform itself. In the U.S.-Iran relationship, he held the upper hand. Questioned by American reporters at a press conference in 1976, the Shah did not disguise his confidence in that regard. “What will you do if one day Iran will be in danger of collapsing?” he asked rhetorically. “Do you have any choice?” Washington would continue to build up Iranian military power because the only alternatives, the Shah said, were “an all-out nuclear holocaust or other Vietnams.”
Enhancing Iranian (and also Saudi) military capacity would obviate the need for direct U.S. military involvement in the region. That was the object of the exercise. On this point senior U.S. officials were explicit. Testifying before a House subcommittee in August 1972, Assistant Secretary of State Joseph J. Sisco stated, “There is no need for the United States to exercise responsibilities for security that the British exercised in the gulf in a different era.” Militarily, in other words, the Greater Middle East was a region the United States wished to avoid. “It is not our intention,” Sisco emphasized, “to undertake an operational military role in any state in the area.”
In fact, however, even as the United States was pouring arms into Iran, the Shah was losing his grip on power. His so-called White Revolution had alienated segments of Iranian society ranging from secularized liberals to religious conservatives. All viewed the Shah as an American lackey. All saw the United States as parasitic, profiting from even while underwriting the regime’s corruption. By early 1978, these groups had coalesced into a political force united by a single common aim: a determination to oust the Shah and his henchmen. Beginning barely a week after Carter’s New Year’s Eve visit to Tehran, protests on an ever-expanding scale rocked major Iranian cities. As opposition mounted, the Shah vacillated between offering concessions and cracking heads, evidence of uncertainty that the protestors read as weakness.
With the Shah’s opponents increasingly rallying around an exiled but charismatic and intensely anti-American Shiite cleric known as the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Washington dithered. Within the Carter administration, sharp disagreement existed over whether the Shah could be or even should be saved. Mixed signals from the United States further undercut the Shah’s dwindling reserves of courage and self-confidence. On January 16, 1979, his position increasingly untenable, he fled into exile. On February 1, Khomeini returned to Iran. With his arrival in Tehran, greeted by millions of ecstatic supporters, the Nixon Doctrine became a dead letter. The U.S. military mission and American arms firms soon thereafter closed up shop.
Within the Pentagon, reassessing U.S. policies in the Greater Middle East became the order of the day. By June 1979, a just-completed study by a then-obscure Defense Department official named Paul Wolfowitz was attracting notice throughout the national security bureaucracy. The United States, Wolfowitz wrote in what became known as the “Limited Contingency Study,” had “a vital and growing stake in the Persian Gulf,” stemming from “our need for Persian-Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Wolfowitz adhered to an expansive definition of the Persian Gulf, his paper referring to “the region between Pakistan and Iran in the northeast to the Yemens in the southwest.”
Threats to the stability of this region were legion, Wolfowitz citing “ideological rivalries, territorial disputes, the clash between modernizing trends and the forces of tradition, ancient ethnic and religious hatreds, and sheer personal ambition fed by the enormous wealth that is at the disposal of some very weak governments.” Even so, two concerns stood out as paramount: first, possible troublemaking by America’s rival superpower, the Soviet Union; and second, the ambitions of Ba’athist Iraq, with its pan-Arab, radical nationalist agenda.
The first possibility was arguably the more dangerous; the second Wolfowitz considered far more probable. “Iraq has become militarily pre-eminent in the Persian Gulf,” he asserted. To address “the emerging Iraqi threat” now required the United States to “make manifest our capabilities and commitments to balance Iraqi power.”
In plain language, Wolfowitz was proposing to throw American military might into that balance, whether in the form of “advisors and counter-insurgency specialists, token combat forces, or a major commitment.” Demonstrating a willingness to take on Iraq would enable the United States to maintain the region’s precarious stability or at the very least to make other threats more manageable.
Whether Wolfowitz’s early preoccupation with Iraq qualifies as prescient or a blatant exercise in fear-mongering may be a matter of taste. While substantially overstating Iraqi military capabilities, Wolfowitz was more right than wrong in his estimate of Iraqi ambitions. No one would mistake Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for a status quo power. Yet what matters here is not a personal fixation destined to blossom into an obsession but Wolfowitz’s larger argument for making the Persian Gulf a U.S. military priority.
Leading defense intellectuals lent their support to the proposition. In Washington, challenges to entrenched habits seldom go anywhere unless they acquire a critical mass, usually as a result of repetition by the putatively reputable. In this instance, Albert Wohlstetter, Wolfowitz’s graduate school mentor and intellectual doppelgänger, weighed in with a series of well-timed op-eds that echoed Wolfowitz’s analysis and called for Washington to “prepare for contingencies on the flanks,” notably in the Persian Gulf. “For years our eyes have been fixed on a possible massive attack through Germany’s Fulda Gap,” Wohlstetter pointed out, but now the United States needed to widen its gaze.
“Like it or not, the fate of America and its major allies is tied to OPEC,” Wohlstetter wrote. Developing the capacity to “cope with violence and instability in regions like the Gulf and the Middle East” had therefore emerged as a strategic imperative.
As we shall see, within a matter of months, such reasoning—however flawed—prevailed. In the interim, however, President Carter himself floated an alternative to militarizing U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East, one that questioned whether America’s fate was, in fact, tied to OPEC. Here, in retrospect, was the strategic road not taken.
The Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah triggered a second “oil shock.” Iranian production fell off sharply. OPEC seized the opportunity to announce a succession of price increases, adversely affecting the already troubled U.S. economy. Although ample supplies of gasoline remained available, Americans panicked. Once again, long lines appeared at gas stations. Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings plunged, putting him on par with Richard Nixon on the eve of his resignation. The following year’s presidential election now loomed on the political horizon. By the summer of 1979, Carter’s prospects for winning a second term did not appear promising.
The moment called for a vigorous demonstration of presidential leadership. The White House duly announced the president’s plan to make a major policy speech on energy. But then Carter had second thoughts. Postponing the speech, he sequestered himself at Camp David, in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. Over the course of ten days, he consulted with Americans of high station and low, hoping to discern what was actually ailing the nation. His conclusion: Oil was not the problem; rather, America’s oil addiction signified something far, far more troubling—a people that had lost its moral bearings. Yet within that very addiction lay the prospects of recovery.
When Carter finally came down from the mountain, he shared his findings with the American people. In content if not in delivery, his nationally televised address of July 15, 1979, bears comparison with Abraham Lincoln at his most profound, Woodrow Wilson at his most prophetic, and Franklin Roosevelt at his most farsighted.
Apologetic, confessional, and even self-flagellating, Carter began with a mea culpa and then briskly transitioned from his own shortcomings to the nation’s “true problems.” The president characterized those problems as “deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession,” that is, deeper than the actual problems Americans had elected him to solve. Surpassing all such concerns was “a fundamental threat to American democracy,” which Carter termed “a crisis of confidence.” In reality, this crisis stemmed not from an absence of confidence but from a collapse of values. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,” the president continued, “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Carter warned against expecting government to restore a sense of purpose to empty lives. Officeholders at all levels, he charged, had shown themselves seemingly “incapable of action.” Failures of governance had left the country awash with “paralysis and stagnation and drift.” Salvation, therefore, lay in the people’s hands:
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves.
Then came the punch line: “We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.”
Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally. On the battlefield of energy we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.
So, the solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country. It can rekindle our sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.
Ending their addiction to oil would enable Americans to rediscover and to reclaim authentic freedom. At least in the interim, that implied sacrifice and getting by with less.
It was as if, judging the nation to be fat and out of shape, Carter was prescribing a regimen of fresh fruits and vegetables. No more fast food. Instead, daily trips to the gym were the order of the day.
Except that Carter didn’t view himself as a lifestyle coach or fitness instructor. He was an agent of the Lord. Hendrik Hertzberg, then a White House speechwriter, subsequently described the “crisis of confidence” speech as “an exercise in national pastorship.”
Although couching his appeal in nonsectarian language, Carter was calling for a new Great Awakening, which like its predecessors promised to purge and purify and renew. If Americans heeded their pastor, they would cease to worship the Golden Calf and return to the true religion.
Now, the America that Carter so nostalgically described never existed. But this myth of a people defined by faith, community, family, and hard work has always exerted considerable appeal and does so even today. So not all that surprisingly, the “crisis of confidence” speech evoked a largely positive immediate response.
Overnight polling showed that many Americans liked what they’d heard. In his diary later that evening, a pleased Carter wrote that Americans “were getting the message.”
But enthusiasm soon began to fade.