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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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Carter’s views were a reaction to the policies of Nixon and Kissinger, who regarded the Arab-Israeli conflict as a subset of the Cold War. In their view, Israeli power was an asset for establishing American primacy, providing Washington with an instrument for making Egypt choose: War and economic stagnation under the Soviet umbrella, or peace and Western economic investment under the aegis of American power. From this perspective, the U.S.-Israel alliance enhanced American power and prestige. Carter saw this approach as an extension of the zero-sum mentality in the Cold War that he sought to extirpate from American strategic thinking. In addition, it stirred up Arab enmity. Israeli power was, in Carter’s view, as much a liability as an asset, because it transformed Arabs who otherwise had no quarrel with America into its antagonists. Promoting peace, in his mind, was therefore synonymous with restraining Israel. 

Obama sees himself as providing an identical corrective to the perceived excesses of his predecessor. Bush, he believes, moved too close to the Israelis. By supporting them unquestioningly, he alienated Muslims throughout the Middle East. An invigorated peace process, Obama believes, will reduce hostilities across the board and render the region more hospitable to the United States. 

Whatever one thinks of this approach, it certainly made more strategic sense in Carter’s day than it does now. Prior to the Camp David Accords, the primary regional ally of the Soviet Union had been revolutionary Egypt, so Cairo’s decision to make peace with Israel represented a strategic windfall for the United States. The Soviet Union had lost its premier client in the Middle East, Washington gained a major ally, and the Eastern Mediterranean was significantly pacified. Today, however, the potential for a similar breakthrough is nonexistent. Obama’s efforts are focused primarily on brokering an agreement between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority, unlike pre-Camp David Egypt, already occupies a position within the American security system. The prospects for the success of these efforts are minuscule. But even if the talks were to produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the basic strategic picture that we see today will remain unchanged because it will not significantly mitigate the Iranian threat.

Keep in mind that just as Egypt changed sides in the Cold War, within a year the United States lost a major ally with the fall of the shah. Iran eventually went on to take up the mantle of revolutionary Egypt as the leader of anti-American forces in the region. When Egypt and Iran traded places, the center of gravity in the region shifted from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The sticking point is that Arab-Israeli peacemaking is a tool for calming the former and has limited value, if any, with respect to the latter. 

Carter’s tangled legacy has ensnared Obama. The Carter Doctrine calls on Obama to safeguard American hegemony in the Gulf, but the success of the Camp David Accords creates the illusion that peacemaking is the means to do so.

Over time Obama may well recognize the illusion for what it is. Iran sees itself as a geostrategic rival of the United States, not as a potential partner. Just as the nature of the Soviet Union prevented Carter from working constructively with it, so the nature of the Islamic Republic will preclude Obama from constructive negotiations. At the same time, Obama will come to realize that the Israeli-Palestinian talks, even if they resume, will never pay great strategic benefits. Like Carter, he will be compelled to adopt a more comprehensive strategy to protect the American order in the Persian Gulf. Sooner or later, the enemies of the United States will force on the president a wider definition of the strategic threat. 

A visiting professor at NYU’s Wagner School, Michael S. Doran is a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. A version of this article originally appeared in the E-Notes series of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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