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The Second Carter Term

Obama’s strategic vision is straight out of 1977.

Oct 11, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 04 • By MICHAEL S. DORAN
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The Second Carter Term

President Obama came to power intending to rectify the perceived mistakes of George W. Bush in the Middle East. With that goal in mind, he announced two major initiatives: reaching out to Iran and intensifying efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. Neither effort has borne fruit, as two speeches at the recent meeting of the United Nations General Assembly have reminded us. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his address to shun yet again the outstretched American hand. This time, he suggested that the United States had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks in a futile attempt to maintain its faltering grip on the Middle East. Iran is on the rise, he said: The United States is a spent force. For his part, President Obama urged the Israelis and Palestinians to sign a peace agreement within one year. Less than a week after this exercise in direct presidential encouragement, the talks between the two sides have faltered and may well be suspended. In the light of these setbacks, it is a good time to reconsider some of the fundamental assumptions of what might be called Obama’s “strategic belief system.” 

Bush’s Global War on Terror, Obama reasoned, was a classic example of overreach. Bush had defined the strategic threat as the convergence of state sponsors of terrorism, terrorist groups, and weapons of mass destruction. That definition placed the United States in conflict with al Qaeda, certainly, but also with Iran, among others. From Obama’s perspective, lumping all terror sponsors together was a crude strategy: It forced a number of potentially helpful states, including Iran, solidly into the enemy camp. The Iranian regime might be unsavory, Obama reasoned, but it shares with the United States a deep hostility to al Qaeda and a desire for stability in Iraq. A less Manichean approach, therefore, would allow Washington to exploit the overlap in interests. Consequently, Obama defined the strategic threat much more narrowly: He declared war only on al Qaeda and related movements. Iran, though certainly not a friend, is no longer clearly defined as an adversary.

This narrow definition, however, is proving inadequate, and Obama will likely be forced to widen it soon. To understand why this is so, it is helpful to compare Obama’s experience with that of Jimmy Carter.

Like Obama, Carter took office believing that his predecessors had exaggerated the strategic threat of the day, and had prosecuted a senseless, self-destructive war. The threat, of course, was the Soviet Union; the war, Vietnam. In seeking a hard-power solution to the spread of Communism, the United States had grown estranged from its better angels and, in doing so, undermined American security. The international system, Carter assumed, was relatively benign—provided, that is, that the United States would stick to the high road and refrain from stirring up opposition to itself. In his first major foreign policy speech, Carter famously claimed that fears of Communism were “inordinate.” 

A series of provocations from Moscow, however, made it very difficult for the president to defend his policy of outreach. In December 1979, the tipping point came with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter’s newly awakened perception of danger was magnified by the fact that the Red Army had rolled across the Afghan border less than a year after the Iranian revolution. The confluence of these two events stoked fears in Washington that Moscow might seek to exploit American vulnerabilities in the Persian Gulf.

The Soviet invasion prompted the president to issue a bold statement of American primacy: The Carter Doctrine. “An attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region,” he announced, “will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Carter, like Obama, had come to Washington with the intention of cooperating with an erstwhile adversary and abjuring a reliance on hard power. He left proclaiming American hegemony, and developing the military tool—the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which was CENTCOM’s precursor—needed to protect it. 

Try as he might, Obama will find this legacy impossible to escape—not because the Carter Doctrine itself is a straitjacket but, rather, because the Persian Gulf is still today a key strategic issue. Neutralizing Tehran should be the overarching strategic goal of the United States in the Middle East, but the Obama administration has been slow to define Iran as the central problem. A major cause for this reluctance is, ironically, another Carter legacy. In addition to reaching out to enemies, Obama is also following the Carter tradition of viewing Arab-Israeli peacemaking as a primary strategic task. 

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