America and the Persian Gulf - The Case for Dropping the Carter Doctrine

By Greg Brew

For nearly forty years, the United States has used military and diplomatic power to guarantee the security of the Persian Gulf. There were two original reasons for this policy: first, the importance of Persian Gulf oil for Western energy consumption, and the need to maintain the stable flow of that oil; and second, the existence of major threats in the region, which could disrupt that flow and potentially upset the global energy supply, affecting the economic stability of the United States and the rest of the industrialized world. The United States felt compelled to protect the first from the second.

This policy originated from a speech given by President Jimmy Carter in January 1980, and has come to be known as the “Carter Doctrine.” It is one of the oldest and most consistent shibboleths of American foreign policy and one the bedrocks of American engagement with the Middle East. It has not been perfect. Its implementation has had unintended consequences. And, like any policy born out of specific circumstances, it was never meant to be permanent.

The time has come for a new policy, one which can replace the Carter Doctrine. First, however, the doctrine must be placed in its appropriate context: Its background and roots in the postwar energy economy and Middle East politics, must be explored; how the US went about executing the policy in the 1980s and 1990s must be illustrated, to show how the doctrine provided the basis for US involvement in the Gulf after the chief threat to the region’s security, the Soviet Union, had disappeared; finally, the present state of both Gulf security and the world’s oil supply vis-a-vis American interests has to be shown in the proper context.

It is now time for the United States to begin its withdrawal from the Gulf and lower its commitment, in order to reflect these changes and allow for a more effective deployment of American resources elsewhere.

Background: Why the Gulf?

On a map, the Persian Gulf doesn’t look particularly important. A small body of water locked away from the rest of the Indian Ocean and isolated from most major trade routes, the Gulf for centuries was a backwater, famed for its pearls and little else. That all changed in 1908, when for the first time, oil was discovered beneath the rocks of Masjed-I Suleiman, a hot, dry valley in the Iranian province of Khuzistan.

In the century to follow, more oil has been drilled and discovered in the Persian Gulf than anywhere else on earth. Oil is the reason the tiny countries of Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are some of the wealthiest in the world, why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia values its state-run industry at over a trillion dollars, and why Iraq has repeatedly invaded its neighbors, before being invaded itself. Together with the decades-long Arab Israeli conflict, the struggle over Middle Eastern oil, and the oil of the Persian Gulf in particular, is the reason why the United States cares about these countries, in a way that isn’t exactly true for Somalia, Sri Lanka, Mali or even Syria.

Through the Straits

Every day, the world consumes around 98 million barrels of oil. Around half that amount is consumed where it’s produced and the remainder is funneled into transnational pipelines or loaded onto oil tankers, to be shipped to markets across the sea. A full third of globally traded oil, 17 million barrels a day, passes through a single narrow waterway at the eastern end of the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, barely twenty miles wide. Sail through the narrow strait and you enter the world’s most prolific oil-producing region, home to half the world’s crude oil reserves, an area which has enjoyed fantastic wealth and, occasionally, explosive conflict.

This explains why the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, along with a force of five thousand marines. Why the Al Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar is home to nine thousand US servicemen, while another thirteen thousand are stationed in Kuwait. All told there are around twenty-eight thousand American military personnel in the Persian Gulf, out of thirty-five thousand in the greater Middle East. Since 1980, when President Jimmy Carter declared the U.S. intention to protect the “free flow of oil” out of the Persian Gulf from any exterior threat, the US has maintained a military presence in the area.

But that decision wasn’t made in a vacuum. In fact, the United States had been committed to ensuring the security of the Persian Gulf, and its bountiful oil reserves, for several decades before it became official U.S. policy.

“Postwar Petroleum Order”

The American commitment to defending the Persian Gulf originated in decisions made shortly after World War II, when the U.S. and its allies were busy establishing an international economic and political order.

Immediately after World War II, the Persian Gulf became an area of vital importance to American national security. The reason was simple: the oil flowing from Saudi, Kuwaiti, Iraq and Iranian oil fields was crucial to the reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan. The future of the international order which the U.S. sought to construct after the war rested on easy access to cheap, reliable energy. American energy reserves were ample, with the U.S. still the world’s top oil producer, yet Middle Eastern oil would provide the bulk of European and Japanese fuel in the postwar period. This policy facilitated the rapid expansion of Middle East oil production after 1945.

The global energy system that emerged, referred to as the “postwar petroleum order,” helped usher in a major period of global economic expansion, based on easy access to cheap Persian Gulf crude. Oil consumption throughout the world increased tremendously, while production from major Middle East oil states exploded.

But Middle East oil was not entirely safe. The Soviet Union, the U.S. Cold War rival, was nearby and could threaten Western access to Persian Gulf oil. The region’s governments were weak and rickety, many of them antiquated absolute monarchies or unstable, nascent democracies.

The United States, already stretched thin, relied upon help from Great Britain to defend the region. The British, active in the Gulf since the 1880s, had close relationships with Kuwait and the Gulf sheikhdoms, as well as the military clout to protect them against attack.

But Britain was winding down its empire and reducing its military footprint, and in 1971 it withdrew from the Gulf. Rather than step in, the United States turned to its two strongest regional allies: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Flush with petro-dollars, both states spent heavily on military hardware from the U.S. and committed themselves to ensuring the “free flow” of oil from the Gulf.

Neither state was democratic: Saudi Arabia was ruled by an absolute monarchy, as it still is today, while Iran was dominated by the authoritarian rule of the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. In fact, none of the Gulf producers were ruled by democratic governments, despite being friendly to the West. Yet in the Cold War world, priority was given to keeping out the USSR and its proxies. As long as the Gulf producers agreed to provide oil for Western consumers, even at ever-increasing prices, their security was worth protecting. In fact, the presence of reactionary governments like the theocratic monarchy in Riydh and the modernist, militaristic dictatorship of the shah helped reassure successive U.S. governments that the threat of communist subversion in the region was being kept to a minimum.

1970-1980: The Order is Threatened

Iran and Saudi Arabia became the regional policemen once Britain abdicated that position in 1971. To assist the shah of Iran, the United States provided nearly unlimited military aid, while the expanding price of oil in the 1970s allowed Iran to construct a large, expensive military. Yet Iran’s status as a key U.S. ally came to end when the shah was overthrown during the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution. Resistance to his rule culminated in his downfall and the rise of the Islamic Republic, a theocratic state led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini which proved antagonistic and even hostile towards the United States.

Western access to Persian Gulf oil now seemed threatened. Moreover, the global energy balance had changed. The United States could no longer provide enough oil to meet its own domestic demand, and oil imports had expanded since 1971. The declining clout of the United States and the rising demand for oil worldwide facilitated a push in the early 1970s by oil-producers to seize greater control over the oil supply. The result was the first “oil shock” in 1973. In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian production was cut, which sent prices shooting up once again. Deprived of a major ally upon whom it could rely and facing further instabilities in the world energy market, the United States was suddenly faced with the challenge of securing the Persian Gulf with its own forces.

Meanwhile, Iran’s neighbor Iraq was mobilizing troops for a surprise attack. The Iraqi president Saddam Hussein hoping to capitalize on the fall of the shah to seize Iranian oil fields. On Christmas Day 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, in order to prop up a communist regime there and stave off a civil war among warring Afghan groups. To Washington, the whole region seemed ready to burst.

On January 20, 1980 President Jimmy Carter addressed a joint session of Congress. The world had just been rattled by a series of major geopolitical events. Carter vowed to protect the “free movement of Middle Eastern oil,” and said the US would repel “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf.” While he spoke directly to the Soviet threat, in reality Carter was equally concerned about events in Iran.

The speech articulated what came to be known as the “Carter Doctrine,” a US commitment to maintaining security and stability in the Gulf. In reality, the Doctrine expresses a key tenet of postwar American national security policy, one which for decades had relied upon U.S. allies. Now, with no allies left to turn to, the US was getting involved directly.

The Doctrine in Action

Over the course of the 1980s, the United States steadily expanded its profile in the Gulf, establishing a new military command (Central Command, or CENTCOM) to oversee operations there. Under the aegis of this new military command, US forces directly intervened to defend oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Since then, CENTCOM has been responsible for American military activity in and around the Persian Gulf.

The 100-Hour War

The most significant example of the Carter Doctrine in action was the First Iraq War (1990-1991), also known as the Persian Gulf War. After his war with Iran, Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, was badly in need of funds. The war had sapped Iraq’s economic and military strength, while the central state had taken out billions in loans to nearby Kuwait, a tiny and immensely oil-rich country. Saddam decided to invade Kuwait in August 1990, seizing control of its oil reserves and positioning Iraq, itself a major oil producer, as the world’s wealthiest oil state.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had only a minor effect on world oil prices, but U.S. President George H.W. Bush responded immediately, declaring an embargo on Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil and dispatching several hundred thousand US troops to protect Saudi Arabia. In February 1991, after a months-long air campaign against the Iraqi military, a coalition of US and other allied troops pushed Iraq out of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm, the largest US military campaign since the Vietnam War. Unimpeded access to Persian Gulf oil was thus restored, thanks to US military power.

After Desert Storm, discussion ensued over what the U.S. should do next. Rather than withdraw its forces, the United States under President Bill Clinton chose to remain in the Gulf, deploying thousands of troops to contain both Iraq and Iran, in a policy known as “dual containment.” A contingent in Washington had advocated for a complete withdrawal, while some had called for more aggressive U.S. action against Saddam Hussein, whom it was felt had effectively escaped punishment for his invasion of Kuwait. Dual containment was a middle-of-the-road strategy, maintaining the significant US presence built up before Desert Storm, without taking further action.

The policy was successful in preventing further aggression by Iraq or Iran, but it had unintended consequences. The presence of so many U.S. troops in the Middle East angered Islamist groups, including the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, who felt it amounted to an occupation of their homeland by a foreign power. Throughout the 1990s, Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden launched several attacks on U.S. forces, including a suicide attack on the destroyer USS Cole. The US presence in the Gulf was a chief motivation for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 which were planned and executed by Al-Qaeda.

Following 9/11, the U.S. interest in military action in the Middle East became much more acute. Yet while terrorism was the most immediate threat, access to oil remained very much on the minds of policymakers in the Bush Administration. With US reserves dwindling and global prices rising, concerns that the world was reaching “peak oil” and would soon experience a major energy crisis grew more pronounced.

The presence of so much uncertainty in the Gulf was too dangerous to be allowed to continue. The Bush Administration used the doctrine of “preventive war” to invade Iraq in March 2003, in order to eliminate the hostile Saddam Hussein regime before it could once again threaten the region’s oil supplies. While it did not conceal its concern over regional security and the connection to oil, the Bush Administration downplayed this aspect of its strategy and focused instead on Iraq’ possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Twenty three years after Carter’s address to Congress, the need to protect Western access to Persian Gulf oil remained a top priority. The threat was claimed to be Iraqi “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” but the threat was posed to the stability of oil exports.

The Doctrine Today

After more than thirty years, the Carter Doctrine remains a key tenet of US strategy. American troops remain stationed throughout the Gulf, and the US Navy  patrols its sea-lanes,. The US maintains close strategic partnership with allies among the Arab Monarchies (GCC), and considers Iran a key adversary primarily because of its location so close to so many oil-producing allies.

But global conditions have changed dramatically since 1980. It’s time to consider whether the Carter Doctrine remains a relevant component in American strategy.

Threats to Gulf Security

The Carter Doctrine was about keeping the Gulf safe, in order to protect Western access to its oil. But today, the world oil picture is very different, while conditions within the Gulf have changed.

In 1980, oil from the Persian Gulf amounted to one-third of total world production. The most prolific and productive oil fields were found in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and other Gulf countries, and - importantly - the cost of production there was low. Moreover, the oil seemed worth protecting. The Gulf States were small, weakly and vulnerable to external threats, particularly the Soviet Union. Trouble-makers like Iraq and Iran seemed poised to upset the pro-U.S. regional balance.

Today,  the Cold War is over, the Soviet Union long gone. An invasion or major war over Middle East oil resources, once a very real concern to the United States, is now unlikely. New powers like Russia and China, despite their increasing role in regional politics, have neither the will nor the capability to invade the Persian Gulf. Iraq has been hobbled by years of war.

Iran has maintained a plan for the forcible closure of the straits of Hormuz. However, there are substantial doubts that Iran could successfully close the Strait for more than a few weeks. Doing so would bring a massive military retaliation from the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United States. Reserves of oil kept by most countries, an insurance policy against major oil shocks, would allow the global economy to survive in the event the Straits were closed: the United States Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) is large enough to supply the US need for oil imports for eight months, while China is believed to possess a 90-day strategic reserve. Other oil stores managed by the International Energy Administration (IEA) would also offset the impact of a cut-off.

There’s the chance that a revolution or major upheaval could disrupt the region’s politics even further, just as the “Arab Spring” did to the greater Middle East in 2011. Analysts have pointed to a potential coup or civil war in Saudi Arabia, as the most disruptive potential threat. The risk of a major disruption, one that would take the 10 million bpd of Saudi oil off the market, seems remote. Whether US forces remain crucial to ensure the security of a relatively stable country with the fourth-highest defense budget in the world has become a source of head scratching.

The Persian Gulf and the World

Today, the Persian Gulf continues to supply a significant amount of the world’s oil. Yet its specific importance to the United States has diminished, at least in terms of energy. The Energy Information Administration, a data-collection agency for the US Department of Energy, estimates that around eighty-five percent of all Persian Gulf oil exports which pass through the Strait end up in East Asian markets. The United States imports about 1.7 million barrels per day (bpd) from the Persian Gulf on average, most if from Saudi Arabia. This figure has fallen from an all-time high of 2.7 million bpd in 2001, when concerns over “peak oil” and an imminent energy crisis were just beginning to spread.

Meanwhile, the U.S. imports 3..7 million bpd from Canada and 600,000 bpd from Mexico. In total, the U.S. imports about 10 million bpd and consumers 19 million bpd of oil and oil products every day. This doesn’t imply that Persian Gulf is unimportant; if a major disruption in the Gulf occured, world oil prices would go up, which would impact the U.S. along with the rest of the world. But in day-to-day terms, the U.S. doesn’t rely on Persian Gulf oil the way it used to, as other sources of supply have increased in importance.

The original justification for the Carter Doctrine was the West’s dependence upon imported Persian Gulf oil. Today, that oil is still an important part of the world’s energy infrastructure, but its significance has declined as new production in North America has risen. The United States imports 16% of its overall crude oil from the Middle East, and is poised to become a net exporter of natural gas. Soon, it may become a net exporter of oil as well, for the first time since the 1940s.

The international nature of the oil industry means that major disruptions in one area, such as the Persian Gulf, are eventually offset by increases in supply elsewhere. The US strategic petroleum reserve, along with reserves held by Western Europe, China and Japan, would supply demand as new capacity becomes available.

Moreover, changes in technology and politics have altered the global energy system. The critical issue of climate change will have an impact on future energy development. To avoid an ecological catastrophe, the United States along with the rest of the industrial world must embrace renewable energy, cut down on emissions from fossil fuel use, and attempt to reverse the trends of global climate change through conservation. A continued commitment to defending the Gulf may only prolong the forced dependence on fossil fuels for American energy needs. A realistic approach to combatting climate change must take into account foreign sources of supply, but should emphasize cheaper and cleaner local energy sources, rather than oil shipped from thousands of miles away.

Why it’s time for a new doctrine

A US commitment to protecting the Gulf was born in the midst of the Cold War, when American policy mandated a commitment to upholding the international order. While that commitment is important, it is no longer necessary for the US to act as the  global policeman.

The declining threat to the Persian Gulf renders the continued US commitment to the area’s security questionable at best. The Gulf countries are better positioned to protect themselves now than they were in 1980. They also have fewer threats to defend against.

It’s time for a new doctrine. It is in the US interest to remain committed to helping allies in the Persian Gulf, but we should begin to back away from the hard commitment of the Carter years.

American resources are better used in other theaters, particularly the South China Sea or bolstering NATO against a revisionist Russia. Iran remains antagonistic, but the threat it poses to the region’s oil trade is small, while its attempt to increase influence throughout the region can be better handled through diplomacy and deployment of special forces than with a carrier group.

To be absolutely crystal clear, this is not about putting “America first.” A commitment to the security and stability of the international order is a paramount concern. To advocate a redeployment of American resources, as well as attentions, is not to advocate for a retreat or withdrawal of American commitment to important values such as human rights. Indeed, a withdrawal from the Gulf could allow the US to gradually disassociate itself from governments in the area which regularly, and blatantly, violate key principles which the United States ought to represent.

The Carter Doctrine has provided the basis for US policy in the Persian Gulf for over thirty years. But changing times demand changing strategies. The United States should recognize those changes, and adapt its stance to better prepare itself for the uncertainties that lie ahead.