"Let our position be absolutely clear," Jimmy Carter declared. It was January 1980, and a year later he would no longer be president. But the doctrine he espoused in his final State of the Union address was, arguably, one of the few policies that outlasted his tenure. The Carter Doctrine: "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America."
Two weeks after the president made a commitment to protect the free flow of oil from this contentious region by any means necessary, his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and then-Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher embarked on a weeklong trip that concluded in Saudi Arabia. Their task was to explain why the United States had decided to throw a security blanket over oil-producing countries in Asia and the Middle East. Their reasoning was straightforward: The Soviet Union was mired in its battle for Afghanistan, and the aftershock of the Iranian revolution was still fresh in the hearts and minds of everyone involved.
Every couple of years, oil becomes Topic 1 for a while. Every couple of years, attention is paid—and then it fades. The 1970s brought the Arab embargo and the energy crisis. The early 1980s brought the Carter Doctrine and the Iran-Iraq War. In the early 1990s, Iraq invaded oil-rich Kuwait. In 2003, some claimed the United States had launched a war in Iraq because of oil.
On Tuesday, an entertaining news nugget barely made the headlines: The number of drivers stuck on the road calling for help because they don't have enough gas in the tank has increased dramatically. Apparently, the price of gas has made people more reluctant to fill up when the tank is still half-full. Waiting until the last minute on the all-too-crowded roads of America is a recipe for trouble—and a boon to AAA roadside services. Suddenly, oil has become a major election issue, and the somewhat boring debate about offshore drilling is the hottest topic in town.
Tuesday was also the day in which oil markets responded to rumors that the United States or Israel had attacked Iran. The rumors were false this time around, but everybody understands that one of these days something will happen that will send the price of oil through the roof, testing the Carter Doctrine in ways it has never before been tested. Earlier this year, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, explicitly warned that oil is a legitimate weapon when he predicted, "If the West did not receive oil, their factories would grind to a halt. This will shake the world!" That would be "an assault on the vital interests of the United States."
When the Iranians attacked Kuwaiti tankers during the Iran-Iraq War back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan decided to put U.S. flags on 11 of the tankers and defend them against such attacks. This "reflagging" worked quite well, and the aggressor backed away from confrontation. But what will the U.S. president do if Iran threatens to retaliate against a future attack on its nuclear facilities by blocking the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world's internationally traded oil passes each day?
One assumes that the Carter Doctrine provides an answer to this question. Of course, I've oversimplified both the question and the doctrine, but this is a perfect example of the extent to which life has become more complicated since the 1980s. Battling the Soviet Union—with its vast independent energy sources—is one thing. Threatening the free flow of oil to China and India is quite another.
Consider this: China is the world's second-largest oil consumer today, and its consumption will surpass the United States' by the year 2030. A Chinese defense-policy document recently stated that "security issues relating to energy, resources, finance, information and international shipping routes are mounting." India, the second most populous country in the world, is also growing economically and needs oil as never before. No wonder that India has shown ever-growing interest in signing energy deals with countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia in recent years. In August 2007, the Indians announced a revision in their defense doctrine, extending the strategic reach of their air force in ways that will make it easier for them to defend oil routes.
As its needs and dependence on Middle East oil grow, China is more likely to challenge some of the policies the United States is pursuing in oil-rich regions. Using sanctions to help stop the genocide in Darfur appeals to Washington but is disruptive to relations between China and Sudan. Preventing Iran from interfering in Iraq or from building nuclear capabilities is crucial for the United States, but China is becoming more and more nervous that a confrontation will upset its access to oil.
In 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate foreign relations committee: "We do have to do something about the energy problem. … It has given extraordinary power to some states that are using that power in not very good ways." She was talking about Iran, Venezuela, and Sudan. But from Beijing, the picture might look much different: Iran, Venezuela, and Sudan are all more than willing to supply China—but a country with extraordinary power is making oil more expensive and less available.