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.
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.