Twenty-nine years ago, President Jimmy Carter adopted the radical and dangerous policy of using military force to ensure U.S. access to Middle Eastern oil. “Let our position be absolutely he clear,” he said in his State of the Union address on January 23, 1980. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region [and thereby endanger the flow of oil] 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 principle — known ever since as the Carter Doctrine — led to U.S. involvement in three major wars and now risks further military entanglement in the greater Gulf area. It’s time to repudiate this doctrine and satisfy U.S. energy needs without reliance on military intervention.
Focusing on the Gulf
Carter enunciated his doctrine at a moment when U.S. officials were worried about the recent Islamic revolution in Iran and the concurrent Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Both actions, it was believed, threatened the U.S. ability to ensure uninterrupted access to Persian Gulf oil. “The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance,” Carter said in his pivotal address. “It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil.” Of particular concern: “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.”
Because the United States at that time did not possess any forces specifically earmarked for action in the Gulf, President Carter created a new military body, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), to undertake operations in the region. He also expanded the U.S. naval presence in the Gulf and acquired new basing facilities in the wider region. Carter authorized covert operations in Afghanistan to drive the Soviets out of the country. This effort eventually involved U.S. support for Osama bin Laden and other Islamic extremists who now seek to make war on the United States.
Although successive Republican leaders condemned many Carter policies, they warmly embraced the Carter Doctrine. Every Republican president since 1980 has invoked its basic principle to initiate war in the President Gulf region.
The first to do so was Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. When Iran began firing on Kuwaiti oil tankers (presumably because Kuwait had loaned money to Saddam Hussein), Reagan deemed the attacks a threat to the free flow of oil in accordance with the principles of the Carter Doctrine and ordered U.S. warships to protect the tankers. “Mark this point well,” he declared on May 19, 1987. “The use of the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf will not be dictated by the Iranians.”
The U.S. decision to protect Kuwaiti tankers led to clashes with Iranian gunboats and thus amounted to U.S. involvement in the Iran-Iraq War as a de facto ally of Saddam Hussein. Faced with U.S. and Iraqi opposition, the Iranians were forced to sue for peace in 1988. To what degree this U.S. support led Hussein to believe he could then invade Kuwait with impunity is unknown. In any case, he seems to have expected a mild U.S. response from the invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. This assumption, however, didn’t take the Carter Doctrine into account. When President George H.W. Bush met with his advisers at Camp David on August 3 to consider the implications of the invasion they concluded, according to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, that the Iraqi attack constituted a threat to the safety of Saudi oil and so would have to be repelled in accordance with the Carter policy.
That the basic principles of the Carter Doctrine were in the forefront of Bush’s mind when he initially committed U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf War is plainly evident from the first public address he gave on the topic, on August 8, 1990: “Our country now imports nearly half the oil it consumes and could face a major threat to its economic independence,” he said. Hence, “the sovereign independence of Saudi Arabia is of vital interest to the United States.” Bush later altered his rhetoric to emphasize weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and human rights, but oil was the starting point.
As is well known, Bush Sr. chose not to invade Baghdad after driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait but rather to seek Hussein’s ouster through economic warfare. This led to the imposition of economic sanctions on Iraq — a policy also embraced by President Bill Clinton. Although justified in terms of undermining Hussein’s ability to acquire WMD and other advanced military capabilities, the sanctions’ ultimate goal was to eliminate a threat to the safety of Persian Gulf oil, in accordance with the Carter Doctrine. And when these measures failed to achieve the intended objective — at least in the eyes of President Bush Jr. — the only apparent alternative was direct U.S. military intervention.
Like his father in the days leading up to Operation Desert Storm, George W. Bush avoided referring to oil and spoke solely of WMD and human rights when talking of the need to eliminate Saddam Hussein. But his vice president, Dick Cheney, wasn’t so reticent. In an August 2002 speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he laid out the strategic reasons for attacking Iraq, saying: “Armed with an arsenal of [WMD] and a seat atop 10% of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, [and] directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region.” As such, the current war in Iraq can best be viewed as part of a series of U.S. military moves taken in accordance with Carter’s January 1980 pronouncement.
Obama and the Carter Doctrine
It would be enormously reassuring to conclude that the Iraq War is the last in this series, that the departure of President Bush and the arrival of President Obama signifies the end of U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern wars over oil. But there’s no reason to assume that this is in fact the case. True, Obama has spoken repeatedly of his desire to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq and to hasten the development of petroleum alternatives so as to reduce U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil. But he has not specifically repudiated the Carter Doctrine or its underlying premises. Rather, he has emphasized the need to preserve a robust U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf area and to use force when necessary to protect vital American interests there — though exactly what these interests may be, he has yet to spell out in detail.
Most of the commentary on Obama’s Iraq policy has focused on his pledge to remove U.S. combat troops from the region. But in his first major speech as a candidate on national security affairs, at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on April 23, 2007, he said that he was aware “that there are risks involved” in reducing American troop levels. “That is why,” he continued, “my plan provides for an over-the-horizon force that could prevent chaos in the wider region” (emphasis added). Obama hasn’t spelled out what he means by such a force, but presumably it would entail a larger air and naval presence in the greater Gulf region along with additional U.S. deployments in friendly countries like Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
President Obama also warned of the threat posed by Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in much the same alarmist language George W. Bush used. Although he has emphasized reliance on diplomacy to achieve a peaceful outcome to this peril, Obama hasn’t categorically ruled out the use of military force. Considering that the Iranians have repeatedly warned they’ll respond to any American attack on their territory by blocking the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, it’s obvious the U.S. dispute with Iran over WMD — no less than that with Iraq — is closely tied to the geopolitical thrust of the Carter Doctrine. Thus, while any U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be aimed in the first instance at neutralizing a potential nuclear danger, the ultimate objective would be to ensure the safety of Persian Gulf oil supplies.
So long as the United States adheres to a policy that legitimates the use of military force to protect the flow of oil, we run the risk of involvement in one war after another in the ever-volatile Persian Gulf region. True, other issues and objectives have been associated with these wars, but the underlying strategic premise for every U.S. intervention in the Gulf since 1980 has been the core concept of the Carter Doctrine: to disallow a hostile power from gaining control of the region and blocking our access to its oil.
This policy has done little to ensure us uninterrupted access to oil, and cost us great pain, misery, and expense. Despite the $600 billion or so we have already spent on the Iraq War (on the way to an estimated $2-$3 trillion, when all associated and follow-up costs are included), Iraq today is producing less oil today than it did when U.S. troops invaded the country six years ago. And despite the mammoth U.S. military presence in the Gulf area, Iran emerged as a major regional power amidst a rise in piracy and militant Islam. When all is said and done, conventional military force is an ineffective tool for protecting far-flung, highly vulnerable oil facilities and trade routes.
There’s only one way to reduce America’s vulnerability to the disruption in overseas petroleum deliveries and that is to become less dependent on oil, period. We can’t drill our way out of this predicament because the United States simply lacks enough domestic petroleum to satisfy our gargantuan requirements. We possess 2.5% of the world’s proved oil reserves, yet consume 25% of its daily oil output. To achieve any sort of balance we have to cut our consumption substantially — and that means driving less, developing alternative fuels, converting to gas/electric hybrid and eventually all-electric cars, and otherwise transitioning away from reliance on oil.
President Obama has promised to make a substantial investment in oil alternatives. Such efforts are expected to be a major component of his economic stimulus package and deserve strong public backing. But this is only half of the problem. To overcome what he calls the “tyranny of oil,” he must also repudiate the Carter Doctrine and reject the use of military force to ensure access to Middle Eastern petroleum. Only in this way can we be certain that the Iraq War will be the last time U.S. soldiers shed their blood for oil.