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Why Biden should renounce the Carter Doctrine

President Carter’s 4-decade-old pledge to safeguard Persian Gulf oil has bogged the US down in the Middle East.

Analysis | Middle East

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.

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)
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