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The Carter Doctrine at 30

For most Americans, the 30th anniversary of the Carter Doctrine – promulgated by President Jimmy Carter during his January 1980 State of the Union Address – came and went without notice.

The oversight ranks as an unfortunate one. To an extent that few have fully appreciated, the Carter Doctrine has had a transformative impact on U.S. national security policy. Both massive and lasting, its impact has also been almost entirely pernicious. Put simply, the sequence of events that has landed the United States in the middle of an open-ended war to determine the fate of the Greater Middle East begins here.

The Carter Doctrine stands in relation to the ongoing Long War as the Truman Doctrine stood in relation to the Cold War.

In 1947, President Truman announced that it was “the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Truman’s immediate purpose was to persuade Congress to approve his request for security assistance to Greece and Turkey. Yet under Truman’s successors, his doctrine morphed into something more than he probably envisioned or intended. Under the guise of resisting Communist mischief-making, the Truman Doctrine provided a rationale for U. S. intervention, covert and overt, around the world.

Carter’s immediate aim in January 1980 was also limited. When he declared that "an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States,” to be “repelled by any means necessary,” his primary purpose was to warn the Kremlin against entertaining any thoughts about asserting Soviet dominion over the world’s energy heartland. Yet each of Carter’s successors has reinterpreted his eponymous doctrine, broadening its scope and using it to justify ever larger ambitions. The ultimate effect has been to militarize U.S. policy across various quarters of the Islamic world.

Prior to January 1980, the Pentagon and the rest of the national security establishment had viewed the Middle East as a backwater. In terms of U. S. strategic priorities, that region of the world lagged well behind Europe and East Asia and probably behind Latin America, as well.

Jimmy Carter’s announcement that the Persian Gulf constituted a vital U.S. national security interest changed all that. In short order, the aims implied by the Carter Doctrine expanded. Within a decade, the United States was not content to prevent outside powers from controlling the Gulf. It sought to claim for itself a dominant position in the region. Within two decades, the arena in which the United States sought that dominant role had expanded, eventually encompassing the entire Greater Middle East.

Directly or indirectly, the Carter Doctrine provided the rationale or justification for the following episodes involving the use of force by the United States:

  • Afghanistan War I (1979-1989), the U.S.-led effort to punish the Soviet Union for occupying that country.
  • The Beirut Bombing (1983), the name by which Americans choose to remember Ronald Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon.
  • The war against Khaddafi (1981-1988), a series of inconclusive skirmishes with the Libyan dictator, culminating in the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103.
  • The Tanker War (1984-1988), waged by U. S. naval forces against Iran to maintain the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.
  • Iraq War I (1990-1991), the first U. S. armed confrontation with Saddam Hussein, commonly but erroneously thought to have ended with the liberation of Kuwait.
  • The Somalia Intervention (1992-1993), abruptly terminated by the notorious Mogadishu firefight.
  • Afghanistan War II (2001-2003), launched in the wake of 9/11, but left in abeyance by the Bush administration’s decision to shift the weight of U.S. military efforts elsewhere.
  • Iraq War II (2003), the resumption of large-scale hostilities against Saddam Hussein, leading to his overthrow, but inducing chaos.
  • Iraq War III (2004-2010?), a war to pacify Iraq in the face of resistance by indigenous insurgents and Islamic radicals raised up by Iraq War II.
  • Afghanistan War III (2009 --), the conflict that Bush’s successor rediscovered, renewed, and expanded; given the deepening U.S. military involvement in Pakistan, this war might alternatively be called the AfPak War.

The Carter Doctrine was intended to secure U.S. interests in a region of ostensibly great strategic importance. Those who have applied the Carter Doctrine have assumed that the presence of U.S. forces and the periodic application of American hard power serve to enhance regional stability. Yet the record of the past 30 years suggests just the opposite: The U. S. military presence and activities have served only to promote greater instability. Our exertions, undertaken at great cost to ourselves and others, are making things not better, but worse.

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