Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Administration critics advanced an even more fevered interpretation. Here was the ultimate expression of Carter’s fecklessness. Soviet forces, warned Theodore L. Eliot, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, were now “within a two-day march from the Persian Gulf.” Any further evidence of timorousness on Washington’s part would surely “encourage the Soviets to keep moving in the direction of our and our allies’ oil supplies.”
The Wall Street Journal
spelled out the implications for U.S. policy. It was time to get tough. Washington needed “a resolute and steady plan to oppose Soviet expansion.” Essential to that plan was a demonstrated willingness to go to the mat. “The U.S. considers itself the world’s strongest nation, but it’s clear other countries won’t think that unless America shows it’s not afraid to use strength.”
To have any hope whatsoever of winning election to a second term, Carter needed to rebut the impression that Afghanistan, coming on top of Iran, had created: that he was too dim, too soft, too lacking in vision for the office he held. The occasion of the upcoming State of the Union Address, scheduled for January 23, 1980, offered the chance to do just that. To show that he grasped the seriousness of the situation, Carter seized upon that opportunity to unveil a new policy that nominally addressed the situation in the Persian Gulf but in practice encompassed the core of the entire Islamic world.
Carter began by conceding that simultaneous crises in Iran and Afghanistan—“one of international terrorism and the one of military aggression”—constituted serious “threats to peace.” Yet of the two, the Soviet threat posed “a broader and more fundamental challenge” for one very simple reason:
The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil. The Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Straits of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow. The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic position, therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.
The president who just months before had earnestly sought to persuade Americans to shake their addiction to oil now decried—even as he exaggerated—the possibility of outsiders preventing Americans from getting their daily fix. This he refused to permit. “Let our position be absolutely clear,” Carter continued. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
This statement, subsequently enshrined as the Carter Doctrine, inaugurated America’s War for the Greater Middle East. The United States was not going to seize Persian Gulf oil directly, as Robert Tucker and Miles Ignotus had once urged. Instead, it was going to prevent a hostile takeover of the Persian Gulf, thereby ensuring that Americans and their allies would not want for oil.
The moment bears comparison with the interval between the fall of 1946 and the spring of 1947 when the United States embarked upon the Cold War. Back then, a series of troubling developments, among them Soviet confrontations with Iran and Turkey and an ongoing civil war in Greece, persuaded President Harry Truman that further cooperation with the Soviet Union had become impossible. The upshot was a policy known as
which found initial expression in Truman’s promise to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”—coded language signifying that the United States would henceforth oppose any prospective increase in communist influence anywhere.
Yet the promulgation of this Truman Doctrine in April 1947 represented not only a decision of profound importance but also a capitulation. Senior members of his administration, their views amplified by influential outsiders, had been urging Truman to take a tougher line with the Kremlin. Those views now prevailed, with Truman abandoning his oft-expressed hope that the end of World War II would give way to an era of peace.
Similarly, the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine in January 1980, issued in response to a series of troubling developments, also represented a capitulation of sorts. In the vain hope of winning a second term, Carter was repudiating the premises—and promises—that had formed the foundation of that presidency.
In his memoirs, Brzezinski wrote, “The Carter Doctrine was modeled on the Truman Doctrine.”
The comparison is a telling one. The expansive language employed in articulating the Truman Doctrine invited misinterpretation and misuse, with the Vietnam War one example of the consequences.
So too with the articulation of the Carter Doctrine. It represented a broad, open-ended commitment, one that expanded further with time. As subsequent events made clear, the Carter Doctrine applied to areas well beyond the Persian Gulf per se, much as Wolfowitz’s Limited Contingency Study had advocated. And along with external threats such as the Soviet Union, it also encompassed local ones, such as Iran, Iraq, and lesser entities generically referred to as “terrorists.”
Yet in contrast to the Truman Doctrine, successful implementation of the Carter Doctrine was going to require something more than mere
Ensuring that Americans and America’s allies would not want for oil required that the United States impose order on the Persian Gulf and its environs.
At the time few said so out loud, but implementing the Carter Doctrine implied the conversion of the Persian Gulf into an informal American protectorate. Defending the region meant policing it. While keeping the Soviets out, the United States would assume responsibility for enforcing good behavior on the part of anyone inclined to make mischief. How else could the United States safeguard the uninterrupted flow of oil?
As to the specifics of implementation, Carter’s State of the Union Address offered few details. The president spoke of “improving our capability to deploy U.S. military forces rapidly to distant areas” and of “making arrangements for key naval and air facilities to be used by our forces in the region of northeast Africa and the Persian Gulf.” He promised to expand the U.S. naval presence and to provide increased military aid to Pakistan, now once again in Washington’s good graces as a valued ally against a common foe. But these amounted to little more than preliminary steps. The real goal, as yet unstated, was to achieve what Brzezinski referred to as “military preponderance” throughout this quarter of the globe.
Nothing less would suffice in a region of vital importance.
The logic appeared compelling. In a region threatened by external aggression and internal disorder, the introduction of U.S. military power would have a stabilizing and reassuring effect.
Not everyone bought this line, of course. The iconoclastic journalist I. F. Stone, always suspicious of what policymakers were cooking up behind closed doors, speculated that Carter’s vow to defend the Persian Gulf might be little more than a cover story. Soviet actions in Afghanistan, he suggested, were providing the United States with a pretext “for moving into place a rapid-deployment force that could someday tempt us to try to seize the Arab oilfields.”
However outlandish at the time, some twenty-three years later this prediction came to pass, at least in the eyes of some observers, when the United States invaded Iraq.
Less given to conspiracy theories but equally skeptical of militarizing U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf was Hermann Eilts, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Saudi Arabia and a key figure in the negotiations at Camp David that in 1978 had produced the Egypt-Israeli peace agreement. Writing in the journal
Eilts warned that U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf “would be viewed as blatant imperialism and provide grist for the mill of anti-American elements.” Only the most extreme circumstances, “where the very survival of this nation is at stake,” would justify sending U.S. forces into the region. Instead of girding for war, Eilts counseled, Washington would be better served in pursuing “an equitable solution to the Palestinian problem,” thereby transforming the region’s political climate.
The situation required not force but creative diplomacy.
As with I. F. Stone, subsequent events would vindicate Eilts. Yet at the time, they were outliers, their views carrying little weight. For the most part, those critical of the Carter Doctrine complained not that it was provocative or unwise but that the president was guilty of doing too little, too late. It was now an election year and critics hammered Carter relentlessly for having put the United States in such jeopardy, whether out of apathy or incompetence having stood idly by while adversaries acted.
By entering Afghanistan, wrote columnist Joseph Kraft in
The Washington Post,
“The Soviets have asserted themselves as the dominant power in the vortex of world politics.”
cover story—the cover itself depicting Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev decked out in Arab robes and
—cited “plenty of physical evidence” showing that the Russians were “gearing themselves up for an invasion of Iran.” But Iran was merely a way station. For the Kremlin, “the real objective” was “control of the West’s largest reservoir of oil in the Gulf.” In short, seizing Saudi Arabia was the ultimate goal.
The noted Harvard historian Richard Pipes went even further. He described a giant Soviet pincer movement “directed toward the Middle East.” Denying the West access to Persian Gulf oil would put the Kremlin in a position to strangle Europe, leaving the United States isolated and alone.
columnist concurred, writing that “the Russian move into Afghanistan creates new facts of immense strategic importance.” Chief among those facts was the evident Soviet willingness “to use its new brute force frontally,” thereby positioning itself “one giant step closer to the biggest strategic prize in the postwar world, the Persian Gulf oil tap.”
In the eyes of Ronald Reagan, none these “facts” qualified as new. According to the former California governor, already in the race for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan simply affirmed that the Soviet Union remained what it had always been: “a hostile, imperial power whose ambitions extend to the ends of the earth.”
The evidence suggested that the Kremlin was now targeting the world’s oil supply as its next objective. The situation called for a far more vigorous response than Carter had outlined in his State of the Union Address. Reagan had a simple solution: Impose a naval blockade on Cuba, which the Soviet Union owned, as he put it, “lock, stock, and barrel.” Then send the Kremlin an ultimatum: “Get your troops out of Afghanistan and we give up the blockade.”
More tellingly, George Ball, a Democrat who was not running for office, nonetheless joined the stampede, expressing slightly less inflammatory but still similar views. “It goes without saying,” he wrote, “that America should promptly establish its military competence to cope with further Soviet penetration in the gulf area.” Otherwise, the Russians would have an easy time “picking up the pieces of a disintegrating Iran,” while directly threatening “the world’s coronary artery”—the Persian Gulf itself.
Lending particular weight to Ball’s views was the fact that he was the one member of Lyndon Johnson’s inner circle said to have gotten Vietnam right. In Ball’s judgment, Southeast Asia hadn’t been worth fighting for. The Persian Gulf was.
Yet what now went without saying, at least in Ball’s estimation, represented a remarkable turnabout from what had gone without saying just a year earlier. Then, outsourcing the security of the Persian Gulf had seemed a reasonable proposition. By early 1980, according to the new consensus, it represented the height of folly. A series of unwelcome surprises coming in rapid succession—along with the (erroneous) interpretation that Americans assigned to each in turn—now made it imperative for the United States itself to guarantee regional stability and access to oil.
In the summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter had invited Americans to consider changing the American way of life, trading a shallow freedom for true freedom and dependence for autonomy. They had rejected the invitation. The existing American way of life remained sacrosanct. If its preservation meant fighting, Americans welcomed the fight, even without knowing what fighting might entail. So in January 1980, they embarked upon a war for oil, which was in its way a war to preserve the American way of life, but which was destined by fits and starts to become a War for the Greater Middle East. Even at the outset, no one thought that the challenges ahead would be easy. But at least they appeared straightforward and unambiguous. They would prove to be neither.