The Carter Doctrine: A Middle East strategy past its prime

Posted October 12th, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[From The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

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.

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President Carterissued 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.

In theory, however, none of this is necessary. America doesn’t really need to worry about who controls the Gulf, so long as there’s no threat to the oil supply. What it does need is to maintain relations in the region that are friendly, or friendly enough, and able to survive democratic changes in regime—and to prevent any other power from monopolizing the region.

The Carter Doctrine, and the policies that have grown up to enforce it, are based on a set of assumptions about American power that might never have been wholly accurate. They assume America has relatively little persuasive influence in the region, but a great deal of effective police power: the ability to control major events like regional wars by supporting one side or even intervening directly, and to prevent or trigger regime change.

Our more recent experience in the Middle East has taught us the opposite lesson. It has become painfully clear over the last 10 years that America has little ability to control transformative events or to order governments around. Over the past decade, when America has made demands, governments have resolutely not listened. Israel kept building settlements. Saudi Arabia kept funding jihadis and religious extremists. Despots in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya resisted any meaningful reform. Even in Iraq, where America physically toppled one regime and installed another, a costly occupation wasn’t enough to create the Iraqi government that Washington wanted. The long-term outcome was frustratingly beyond America’s control.

When it comes to requests, however, especially those linked to enticements, the recent past has more encouraging lessons. Analysts often focus on the failings of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” period in the Middle East; democracy didn’t break out, but the evidence shows that no matter how reluctantly, regional leaders felt compelled to respond to sustained diplomatic requests, in public and private, to open up political systems. It wasn’t just the threat of a big stick: Egypt and Israel weren’t afraid of an Iraq-style American invasion, yet they acceded to diplomatic pressure from the secretary of state to liberalize their political spheres. Egypt loosened its control over the opposition in 2005 and 2006 votes, while Israel let Hamas run in (and win) the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections. Even prickly Gulf potentates gave dollops of power to elected parliaments. It wasn’t all that America asked, but it was significant.

Paradoxically, by treating the Persian Gulf as an extension of American territory, Washington has reduced itself from global superpower to another neighborhood power, one than can be ignored, or rebuffed, or hectored from across the border. The more we are committed to the Carter Doctrine approach, which makes the military our central tool and physical control of the Gulf waters our top priority, the less we are able to shape events.

The past decade, meanwhile, suggests that soft power affords us some potent levers. The first is money. None of the Middle Eastern countries have sustainable economies; most don’t even have functional ones. The oil states are cash-rich but by no means self-sufficient. They’re dependent on outside expertise to make their countries work, and on foreign markets to sell their oil. Even Israel, which has a real and diverse economy, depends on America’s largesse to undergird its military. That economic power gives America lots of cards to play.

The second is defense. The majority of the Arab world, plus Israel, depends on the American military to provide security. In some cases the protection is literal, as in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, where US installations project power; elsewhere, as in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, it’s indirect but crucial. (American contractors, for instance, maintain Saudi Arabia’s air force.) America’s military commitments in the Middle East aren’t something it can take or leave as it suits; it’s a marriage, not a dalliance. A savvier diplomatic approach would remind beneficiaries that they can’t take it for granted, and that they need to respond to the nation that provides it.

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The Carter Doctrineclearly hasn’t worked out as intended; America is more entangled than ever before, while its stated aims—a secure and stable Persian Gulf, free from any outside control but our own—seem increasingly out of reach. A growing, bipartisan tide of policy intellectuals has grappled with the question of what should replace it, especially given our recent experience.

One response has been to seek a more morally consistent strategy, one that seeks to encourage a better-governed Middle East. This idea has percolated on the left and the right. Alumni of Bush’s neoconservative foreign-policy brain trust, including Elliott Abrams, have argued that a consistent pro-democratic agenda would better serve US interests, creating a more stable region that is less prone to disruptions in the oil supply. Voices on the left have made a similar argument since the Arab uprisings; they include humanitarian interventionists like Anne-Marie Slaughter at Princeton, who argue for stronger American intervention in support of Syria’s rebels. Liberal fans of development and political freedoms have called for a “prosperity agenda,” arguing that societies with civil liberties and equitably distributed economic growth are not only better for their own citizens but make better American allies.

Then there’s a school that says the failures of the last decade prove that America should keep out of the Middle East almost entirely. Things turn out just as badly when we intervene, these critics argue, and it costs us more; oil will reach markets no matter how messy the region gets. This school includes small-footprint realists like Stephen Walt at Harvard and pugilistic anti-imperial conservatives like Andrew Bacevich at Boston University. (Bacevich argues that the more the US intervenes with military power to create stability in the oil-producing Middle East, the more instability it produces.)

While the realists think we should disentangle from the region because the US can exert strategic power from afar, others say we should pull back for moral reasons as well. That’s the argument made over the last year by Toby Craig Jones, a political scientist at Rutgers University who says that the US Navy should dissolve its Fifth Fleet base so it can cut ties with the troublesome and oppressive regime in Bahrain. America’s military might guarantees that no power—not Iran, not Iraq, not the Russians—can sweep in and take control of the world’s oil supply. Therefore, the argument goes, there’s no need for America to attend to every turn of the screw in the region.

What’s clear, from any of these perspectives, is that the Carter Doctrine is a blunt tool from a different time. It’s now possible, even preferable, to craft a policy more in keeping with the modern Middle East, and also more in line with American values. It might sound obvious to say that Washington should be pushing for a liberalized, economically self-sufficient, stable, but democratic Middle East, and that there are better tools than military power to reach those aims. In fact, that would mark a radical change for the nation—and it’s a course that the next president may well find within his power to plot.

Wanted: A Grand Strategy

Posted November 14th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

THE INTERNATIONALIST

Wanted: A grand strategy

In search of a cohesive foreign policy plan for America

By Thanassis Cambanis 

NOVEMBER 13, 2011

GREG KLEE/GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

President Obama campaigned on the promise of change, and ended up with a world much fuller of it than he and his advisers expected. In the three years since he was elected, the foreign-policy landscape has shifted dramatically, not least because the financial crisis has spread worldwide and the Arab world has risen up against its autocratic rulers.

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GREG KLEE/GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

When the unexpected occurs in the realm of foreign policy–like this year’s Arab revolts, or a hypothetical military crisis in Asia–the nation’s leaders don’t always have ready-made plans on the shelf, and don’t have the luxury of time to start crafting a policy from scratch. What they can rely on, however, is what’s known as a grand strategy. A term from academia, “grand strategy” describes the real-world framework of basic aims, ideals, and priorities that govern a nation’s approach to the rest of the world. In short, a grand strategy lays out the national interest, in a leader’s eyes, and says what a state will be willing to do to advance it. A grand strategy doesn’t prescribe detailed solutions to every problem, but it gives a powerful nation a blueprint for how to act, and brings a measure of order to the rest of the world by making its expectations more clear.

The current changes have hit us at a time when America demonstrably lacks a clear or compelling grand strategy, and in the past year the country’s foreign-policy brain trust has been galvanized by the notion of trying to articulate one that suits the moment. The last White House policy that was widely recognized as a grand strategy was George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” which aimed to spread democracy and embraced a controversial doctrine of preemptive war–and which Bush essentially repudiated in his second term. Ever since, America has confronted a rapidly changing world with a basket of tactics, a few medium-sized ideas, and improvised responses to unexpected crises like the eurozone tumult and the Arab awakening. The current administration has articulated some major goals, including the restoration of America’s international relationships and the recalibration of its global footprint; within foreign policy circles, there’s been a heated debate about the larger strategy behind those goals, or whether a larger strategy exists at all.

In the absence of a clear road map for how, and why, America should be engaging with the world, a number of big-picture thinkers have recently rushed into the gap, filling the pages of the most prominent journals in the field and putting grand strategy at the center of the conversation at influential institutions from the National Defense University to America’s top policy schools.

What are the competing visions for an American grand strategy for the 21st century? All the proposed new strategies try to deal with a world in which America still holds the preponderance of power, but can no longer dominate the entire globe. The two-way Cold War contest is over, but it will be some time before another pretender to power–whether China, Russia, India, or the European Union–becomes a meaningful rival. One simple version has America stepping back from the world, husbanding its resources by projecting power at an imperial remove rather through attempts to micromanage the affairs of far-flung foreign nations. Another has it acting more like a multinational corporation, delegating authority to allies most of the time, but involving itself deeply and decisively wherever its interests are threatened. And some unapologetic America-firsters argue the United States can do better by openly trying to dominate the world, rather than by negotiating with it.

Whatever grand strategy emerges to guide 21st century America, the answer is likely to grow out of America’s history, rather than markedly depart from it. All successful American grand strategies–manifest destiny, Wilsonian idealism and self-determination, Cold War-era containment–were driven in part by a sense of American exceptionalism, the notion that America “stands tall” and acts as a beacon in the world. But they also included a dose of Machiavelli as well, nakedly seeking to contain security threats against America, while using international allies to further American interests.

One influential strain of thinking about grand strategy comes from the realm of small-l liberal realism. Liberal realists are unsentimental in their desire to see America maximize its power, but also restrained about how much America should get involved. They want America to reap more and spend less, in both financial and military terms. Their ideas tend to dominate at policy schools, where much of the applied thinking about foreign affairs comes from, and seem to be getting a thorough hearing within Hillary Rodham Clinton’s State Department.

As a potential grand strategy, the front-runner emerging from these realist thinkers isoff-shore balancing. Essentially, it advocates keeping America strong by keeping the rest of the world off balance. Military intervention, in this line of thinking, should always be a last resort rather than a first move; America’s military should lurk over the horizon, more powerful if it’s on the minds of its rivals rather than their territory. This grand strategy prescribes a “divide and conquer” approach, advocating that Washington use its diplomatic and commercial power to balance rising powers against one another, so that none can dominate a single region and proceed to threaten America. A prominent group of theorists has embraced this idea, including John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

“Our first recourse should be to have local allies uphold the balance of power, out of their own self-interest,” Walt wrote in the most recent edition of The National Interest. “Rather than letting them free ride on us, we should free ride on them as much as we can, intervening with ground and air forces only when a single power threatens to dominate some critical region.”

A slightly different version could be called “internationalist tinkering”: It argues that America should focus on rebuilding its international relationships and coalitions, while reserving America’s right on occasion to act decisively and alone. Writing this summer in Foreign Affairs, another Boston-area political scientist, Daniel W. Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, argued that America can quite effectively maintain its international power by relying on cooperation and gentle persuasion most of the time, and force when challenged by other countries. This approach, Drezner believes, will have the result of “reassuring allies and signaling resolve to rivals.” An example is America’s investment in closer relations with Asian states, putting China on notice and forcing it to adjust its expansionist foreign policy. Drezner argues that although Obama might not have articulated it well, he is already driven by this approach, which Drezner calls “counterpunching.”

Princeton University’s G. John Ikenberry makes a similar argument in his latest book, “Liberal Leviathan.” America, he argues, can and should police the world order so long as it abides by the same rules as other nations. As a sort of first among equals, America holds the balance of power but cannot overtly dominate the world. It’s a position that demands considerable care to maintain, and requires investment in alliances, institutions like the UN, and international regimes like the ones that govern trade and certain types of crime.

Another line of thinking comes from scholars and writers who are more pessimistic about America’s prospects; they see an empire at the beginning of a long period of decline, and believe America needs to dramatically curtail its international engagements and get its own house in order first. It could be called the school of empire in eclipse, and its proponents have been labeled declinists. In effect, they argue that America’s economy and domestic infrastructure are collapsing, and the nation’s global influence will follow, unless America concentrates its resources on rebuilding at home. Many of the most influential thinkers in this strain aren’t against a robust foreign policy, but they argue that it’s impractical to worry too much about the rest of the world until we address the problems at home. The late historian Tony Judt was the one of the leading exponents of this view, and the writer George Packer has taken up many of the same themes. A folk version of this thinking drives much of Thomas Friedman’s writing, and underpins his most recent book, “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back,” which he wrote with Michael Mandelbaum, an American foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins University.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, neo-imperialism holds that America’s grand strategy needs only be more brash and more demanding. (Neo-imperialist thinkers are often called “global dominators” as well.) The recent mistake, in this view, is that America asks too little of the world, and thereby invites frustrating challenges. Mitt Romney’s claim that he “won’t apologize for America” reflects this view, which has its intellectual underpinnings in the writings of conservatives such as Robert Kagan, Niall Ferguson, Robert Kaplan, and Charles Krauthammer. Ferguson, a British historian, has made the provocative suggestion that America should pick up where the British Empire left off, directly managing the entire world’s affairs. In this view, even long and expensive entanglements like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t major setbacks: Militarism, these expansionists argue, has propelled American economic growth and international influence for centuries, and has a long future as long as we aren’t shy about using the force we have.

A grand strategy has to match means with goals; it can’t merely assert American power, but needs to account for America’s own depth of resources. The precarious state of America’s economy and the wear and tear on its military suggest that any successful new strategy would allow for a modest period of retrenchment, one in which America continues to fancy itself the world’s leader but adopts the tone of a hard-boiled CEO rather than a field marshal–Jack Welch rather than George Patton.

Bush’s strategy foundered for those reasons; he boldly and clearly asserted that America would secure itself through preemptive war and the spread of democracy, but found that he simply didn’t have the resources to deliver–and that the world didn’t respond as he hoped to our prodding and aspirations.

America’s limits have grown apparent as it has discovered a surprising shortage of leverage, even over close allies. The liberal grand strategists are feeding into a process already underway in the Obama administration to systematize foreign policy into a coherent framework, something more akin to a grand strategy than the jumble of policies that has marked America’s foreign policy for the least three years. The conservatives, meanwhile, are looking for intellectual toeholds among the Republican presidential contenders.

Earlier this year a top Obama aide seemed to belittle the very idea of a grand strategy as a simplistic “bumper sticker,” something that reduced the world’s complexity to a slogan. But, in a sense, that’s exactly the point of having one. To be truly helpful in time of crisis, a grand strategy must be based on incredibly thorough and detailed thinking about how America will rank its competing interests, and what tools it might use to project power in the rest of the world. But it also demands simplicity: a principle, even a simple sentence, reflecting our values as well as our interests, based on right as well as might, and as clear to America’s enemies as it is to the American electorate.

Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is an Ideas columnist.
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