President Biden has signaled a willingness to restrain U.S. involvement in Middle East conflicts in announcing an end to American support for Saudi military actions in Yemen. But the United States remains prone to entanglements even so, in Yemen and elsewhere, because fundamental U.S. strategy in the region remains unchanged. Biden, like presidents before him, remains locked in the Carter Doctrine — or, an overarching U.S. aim to prevent “any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region,” as President Carter put it in 1980 — which should be abandoned.
For decades the Carter Doctrine has served as the organizing principle for U.S. actions in the Middle East, standing as a strategic imperative for all presidents. Conceived immediately after the energy crisis of the 1970s, the doctrine declared Middle East oil a vital U.S. interest to be protected militarily if needed. U.S. dependence on Middle East oil has waned in the decades since. But the United States nonetheless still regards itself as the protector of Middle East oil, which is viewed by Washington as a kind of global commons to be overseen by the U.S. military for the sake of the world economy.
The underpinning logic of the doctrine was always unsound. The Carter administration in authoring the doctrine effectively mistook the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as a lunge toward the Persian Gulf and overreacted. The Kremlin was not seeking to dominate the region and monopolize its oil. The Soviet Union was concerned more about preserving internal order as its end neared. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries had realized by 1975 that oil embargoes were self-defeating and voiced their intent to keep supplies open for the sake of their own economies.
Nevertheless, the United States persisted with the Carter Doctrine, which in practice amounted to a military buildup around oil reserves and a series of armed interventions aimed at shaping the political order of the region. Pursuit of the Carter Doctrine through successive administrations ultimately gave rise to what has become an elaborate, endless military campaign intended to free up Middle East oil supplies, even though those supplies were not in real danger. And all of this stemmed from a remarkable assertion at the core of the Carter Doctrine that went unquestioned in Washington, namely that Middle East oil could rightly be considered a vital public good for modernity under the protection of America for the sake of all nations.
People in the Middle East understandably have balked at the notion that foreign powers can claim their prime national resource in such a way. Outrage over perceived imperialism has been a driver of violent movements in the region for decades and remains so, forming a major source of instability. The people of the Middle East generally do not consider themselves obligated to produce oil for the sake of the world and resent armed threat for not doing so. As a national resource, the oil is theirs, to do with as they wish. The Carter Doctrine’s rejection of this basic tenet of national sovereignty represents its gravest sin and its irredeemable strategic flaw. The Biden administration should announce an end to this doctrine and embrace a new one that revolves around multinational cooperation rather than the seizure of resources.
The one real global commons in the Middle East is the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway linking the Persian Gulf to the shipping lanes of world markets. The United States has a legitimate interest in ensuring that shipping through the strait is secure — as do many other nations. Iran may treat the strait as its own, but international law designating sea lanes as commons justify a multinational governance approach to this particular resource. That makes the United States just one of many stakeholders in managing the strait. Other nations relying on shipping through the strait, especially countries in the Middle East and East Asia, should all be involved in a multinational maritime mission aimed at ensuring trade flows smoothly in and out of the Persian Gulf.
Any U.S. military presence in the region should revolve around this principle instead of the idea of controlling the whole of the oil in the region, a strategy that has led the United States into far too many fights. Controlling the oil requires installing and supporting pliable governments and, at times, doing their bidding in regional conflicts like the one in Yemen. Helping to safeguard the commons of the Strait of Hormuz, by contrast, makes the United States a partner to all nations of the region and involves other interested countries in a productive way.
Shifting from the Carter Doctrine to a commons doctrine requires some very different thinking about the Middle East from Washington policymakers and the American public alike. The United States currently keeps roughly 60,000 U.S. troops based in the region at an estimated cost of $65-70 billion annually. That massive military footprint would not be needed since the military mission would be mainly at sea. American military intervention in the region would only be contemplated in instances when trade through the strait was threatened. If undertaken, military efforts would be conducted with multinational authority and cooperation and limited to keeping the strait open. That means no regime change or involvement in internal conflicts like Syria, Iraq or Yemen. Counterterrorism missions should only be considered if terrorists are threatening the strait. Armed groups menacing the United States or other nations should be handled by the governments of the countries where they reside.
A full shift in doctrine would over time reduce the U.S. military presence in the Middle East to a naval mission much smaller than the current one keeping so many American warships in the region. On the ground, the countries of the region would largely be left to themselves as a matter of principle and strategy. The idea of America on the sidelines of the Middle East creates a lot of discomfort in Washington, where management of the region through armed force has long been a given for generations of national security officials. And certainly a receding U.S. military presence is no guarantee of a peaceful future for the Middle East. Rivalries like the one pitting Iran against Saudi Arabia are likely to intensify, but so is the incentive to find peaceful solutions.
The truth is that the Middle East will remain a volatile region with or without a massive American military presence. Plenty of voters and policymakers now realize that U.S. troops do little to stabilize the region and wish to see American forces reduced. But a military retrenchment without a fundamental rethinking of overarching doctrine represents just another phase of a misguided military project. It is unjust and unwise to claim stewardship over the whole of a region’s key natural resource. It is reasonable, however, for the United States to stand up as a stakeholder in a legitimate global commons and seek peaceful cooperation. The U.S. military mission in the Middle East is unlikely to end any time soon. But it must change in intent and scope, leaving an ill conceived and outmoded doctrine behind.
Mark Kukis is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute and Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at the Minerva Schools, where he teaches government. Kukis spent a decade as a journalist before joining academia, including three years covering the American occupation of Iraq for Time magazine from 2006 to 2009. Kukis also covered the early phase of the American intervention in Afghanistan as a freelance journalist and served as a White House correspondent for United Press International. His writings have also appeared in The New Republic and Aeon, among other places. He is the author of Voices from Iraq: A People's History, 2003-2009 (2011), an oral history of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq as told entirely by Iraqis. Kukis grew up in the Dallas area and attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied journalism and government as an undergraduate. Kukis did his doctoral work at Boston University, where he studied U.S. foreign policy and political history under Prof. Andrew Bacevich. Kukis has been an invited speaker at RAND, Princeton University and Boston University and done numerous television and radio interviews discussing the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He currently lives in the Boston area with his wife and daughter.
Paratroopers assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division prepare equipment and load aircraft bound for the U.S. Central Command area of operations from Fort Bragg, N.C. on January 4, 2020. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Hubert Delany III)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.