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.
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.
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.
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.
In my latest Internationalist column for The Boston Globe, I write about a group of critics I think of as “new isolationists” — cosmopolitan and balanced advocates for a modest, demilitarized, less interventionist American foreign policy. They’re urbane, they care about the world, but they think America meddles far too much — a level of interference that hurts America as much as the rest of the world.
These old-school realists come at the question from different perspectives but they all share in common a willingness to challenge the received wisdom about America’s approach to the world, and to question whether militaristic interventionism objectively has helped or harmed America’s economy and security. Their critique has matured in the decade since 9/11, and the time is ripe, I think, for us to reconsider their arguments.
There are few ways to get Democrats and Republicans to agree faster than by bringing up national security. Should America invest in a dominant, high-tech military? Should it spend time, treasure, and lives intervening in distant lands and protecting allies? Almost always, the short answer is a resounding yes. Ever since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt browbeat the skeptics and brought America into the Second World War, the country’s foreign policy has been robustly — some would say aggressively — interventionist.
Disagreements have flared only over the details: where to intervene and with what tools. Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, both right and left took for granted America’s position as lone superpower — and that securing America required complex engagements in global conflicts. There’s mainly a difference in tone between “liberal order building,” Princeton grand strategist G. John Ikenberry’s proposal for how America should reestablish its global position, and conservative historian Robert Kagan’s unapologetic demand for American “primacy.”
This consensus in the world’s leading economy has underwritten an unparalleled military that can strike anywhere in the world. The United States has invested trillions of dollars in projecting power, and immeasurable amounts of political capital fulfilling what it considers its rightful, if exhausting, role. Its policy makers have assumed that America must police disputes from the Straits of Taiwan to the Straits of Hormuz. The next 10 largest militaries combined do not equal America’s in size, expense, or power.
But all that glitter obscures a glaring failure, according to an increasingly energized phalanx of critics. While their prescriptions vary, they all believe America suffers from imperial overreach, fighting abroad to the detriment of prosperity at home. MIT’s Barry Posen has been developing “the case for restraint,” calling for the “stingy” use of military power. Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich argues in his latest book, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” that America has become a national security state addicted to military interventions that justify its vast defense apparatus. And the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, in the latest issue of the National Interest, charges that American interventionism creates more threats than it neutralizes. They, and a handful of other thinkers, say that America needs to stop meddling far and wide and concentrate on its forgotten, core interests — if it is not already too late. “The results have been disastrous,” says Mearsheimer.
The nail-biting saga of General Stanley McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview has riveted a wide audience whose interest in Afghanistan had otherwise flagged. Shortly we’ll know whether he keeps his job, and the hyperventilating will subside over civil-military relations (On life support? Healthier than ever?).
McChrystal’s personality aside, however, the American government needs to figure out something much more urgent and important: Is his counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan working? Based on what we’ve learned in the last year, can it work at all?
President Obama hired McChrystal to turn around a war that had stagnated. He was chosen to execute a nimble counterinsurgency strategy, a campaign designed to stabilize Afghanistan and win popular support among Afghanis, harnessing military, political and economic policy.
The prior strategy wasn’t working – the Taliban had made a dramatic comeback in the years since the original invasion in 2001. Even the most vocal proponents of counterinsurgency doctrine cautioned that it had no guarantee of succeeding. To give counterinsurgency a fighting chance might require more troops, money and time than the United States was willing and able to give. (That caveat presaged some early advocates’ current view that there were never enough resources tasked to make a COIN campaign viable.)
Now the U.S. is a year into McChrystal’s plan: the halfway point to the summer of 2011 when the surge is supposed to end and American troop numbers will be reduced. So much has gone off script, however, that it raises questions about whether McChrystal’s blueprint still applies.
- President Hamid Karzai has broken ranks, frequently attacking his U.S. patrons in public.
- The Taliban has gotten stronger militarily.
- The first showcase offensive in Marjah has so far failed to stabilize the town or deny the Taliban sanctuary there.
- This summer’s major showcase offensive in Taliban-dominated Kandahar has been indefinitely postponed.
- Pakistan has derailed efforts to negotiate with the Taliban, even arresting the Taliban’s number-two when he held clandestine meetings with the United Nations.
All these events don’t prove that the U.S. can’t achieve its aims in Afghanistan – but that’s the conclusion to which they’re beginning to point. Counterinsurgency defines the toolkit the military brings to the fight; it doesn’t actually answer the question of what America should do.
Over the next year, if it hopes to establish some lasting stable order in Afghanistan, America will need a far greater unity of effort between its generals, its diplomats, its special envoys, and its friends in the Afghan and Pakistani governments. With or without McChrystal, the United States will have to make course corrections in Afghanistan as the war unfolds.
Quick briefing materials
Fred Kaplan at Slate argues that McChrystal and his loose-lipped team reveal a war effort spinning of control.
Leslie H. Gelb at The Daily Beast argues that the Democratic Party suffers from a permanent culture clash with the military.
Andrew Exum writes a thoughtful post about whether the assumptions behind the current strategy in Afghanistan still hold up. He also struggles with the implications of firing/not firing McChrystal in these two posts.
In the “Is History Repeating Itself?” department we have Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s post-mortem on the last general fired from running the Afghan year, just about a year ago.
And finally, the Michael Hastings article in Rolling Stone that kicked off the fuss, and which – the scandal aside – raises pointed questions about whether the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan makes any sense.
Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress and Andrew Exum at the Center for New American Security tangled this week over Afghanistan strategy. Brian said the counter-insurgency community had hoodwinked Washington, and Andrew said that the Center for American Progress hadn’t presented compelling plans for Iraq and Afghanistan. Michael Cohen prompted the kerfuffle when he argued that the left had failed to question the war in Afghanistan and propose credible alternatives.
All of which got me thinking: can the think tank community propel a smart, substance-focused public debate about America’s strategic aims in Afghanistan? I have in mind a probing, impolitic assessment of whether the current tactics can achieve that strategy. CAP invited CNAS to take part in a public debate, which Exum said he we would happily join after returning from a dissertation leave. But I’d like to see these thinkers applying their brains to the big sprawling questions. Think tanks are largely extensions of different power constituencies in Washington, so perhaps it’s naïve, or structurally impossible, to expect them to re-frame the Afghanistan debate so that it includes more than the current two options: leave, or stay and fight, with some debate over the timeline and number of troops.
I expected this kind of vigorous reappraisal in 2009, during the Obama Administration’s Afghanistan policy reviews. However, the government ended up focusing on narrow questions, like how many troops were required to execute a counter-insurgency strategy, and on what timeline American troops should withdraw. The public never heard an airing of the underlying strategic questions:
- What tactics have been most effective at killing, capturing or deterring individuals and organizations whose goal is to conduct terrorist attacks beyond Afghanistan’s borders?
- What is America’s desired end-state in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Is it achievable, especially considering Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s drift away from the U.S. and Pakistan’s internal problems?
- If not, can America disentangle itself from Afghanistan in its tenth year of war there, even without achieving its principal war aims?
- If the U.S. cannot midwife a stable Afghanistan (or Pakistan) then what is the most effective way to combat the international terrorist groups currently thriving in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan?
These questions are tough, and probing honest answers would probably require the defense and South Asia experts to jettison some of their previous conclusions and criticize the policies of some of their friends and colleagues. But it would be a healthy and illuminating discussion at a moment when the course set largely by General Stanley McChrystal’s report last fall seems not to be yielding the desired results.