Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Kissing the Carter Doctrine Goodbye (Shouldn’t Be This Hard)

It has produced bloodshed, grief, and instability, but our esteemed foreign policy elite just cant let go.
James E. Jr. Carter;Fahad Ben Abdul Aziz Al Saud [RF: Saudi Arabia RF]

Writing in Foreign Policy, three distinguished members of the foreign policy establishment—Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Ken Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute—have issued a warning: Don’t look now, but President Trump appears intent on repudiating the Carter Doctrine. If he does, all the great successes achieved by U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf over the past several decades will be lost. This, they want you to believe, would be a terrible thing.

There is an alternative view and it goes like this: Dating from January 1980, the Carter Doctrine was a catastrophic error. Leading directly to the progressive militarization of U.S. policy in the Gulf, it has produced bloodshed, grief, and instability. Pursuant to the terms of the Carter Doctrine, the United States has spent trillions and sustained tens of thousands of casualties. We killed even more. By adhering to the Carter Doctrine, the United States has sown chaos across much of the region while inadvertently promoting radical Islamist terror. Should you be curious about why 9/11 happened, tracing U.S. efforts to implement the Carter Doctrine would be a good place to begin your inquiry.    

You won’t hear any of that from the triumvirate of Brands, Cook, and Pollack. Theirs is a good news story —at least until Trump started screwing things up. Acting in accordance with the Carter Doctrine, they write, “the United States established and upheld the basic rules of conduct in the region.” Making that claim with a straight face requires ignoring a) U.S. support for Saddam Hussein during Iraq’s war of aggression against Iran, which began the very year of the Carter Doctrine’s promulgation; b) the vicious U.S. sanctions imposed on Iraq throughout the 1990s, punishing not Saddam, but the Iraqi people, c) the Axis of Evil cynically devised to create a fictitious rationale for attacking nations without any involvement in 9/11, d) the flagrantly illegal and reckless U.S. invasion of Iraq dating from 2003; e) the rise of ISIS and various Al Qaeda offshoots as a direct consequence of that failed war; and f) the embrace of assassination as an instrument of statecraft.  

Brands, Cook, and Pollack do not explain how these actions accord with “basic rules of conduct,” merely conceding that the George W. Bush administration “botched the reconstruction of Iraq” as if the Iraq War were a really nifty idea that inexplicably didn’t turn out well.  

A more accurate description of U.S. policy in the Gulf from the 1980s through the first decade of the twenty-first century would be this: Washington devised rules and then disregarded them whenever they proved inconvenient. More often than not, havoc resulted.  

Brands, Cook, and Pollack correctly note that various initiatives undertaken under the aegis of the Carter Doctrine have ultimately redounded to the benefit of the Islamic Republic of Iran. But if Iran is a problem, they have a solution. Kick some ass.

They urge Trump to respond to “further acts of Iranian aggression”—it’s always the other side that commits aggression—“with strikes against Revolutionary Guard facilities, warships, ballistic missile sites, command and control nodes, or other valuable regime assets.” Brands, Cook, and Pollack want the United States “to strike hard enough to demonstrate both to Iran and to the world that it will not back down from a fight, and that if Iran chooses to escalate, so too will America.”

More war—that’s the answer. I’m guessing that by now President Carter himself might be having second thoughts. 

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large and also serves as president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.