Carter Doctrine

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Zbigniew Brzezinski meets with the Mujahideen Taliban, 1979.[1]

The Carter Doctrine was proclaimed by President Jimmy Carter in his State of the Union Address on 23 January 1980. In it he said:

Let our position be absolutely clear: 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, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

A 1980 pledge by Secretary of State Edmund Muskie went even further, putting the gulf states on notice that the United States would not allow anyone to interfere with oil tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. At the time, Carter's statement was widely considered to encompass the use of nuclear weapons in response to a Soviet advance into Iran. In February 1980, details of a Pentagon report emerged indicating that the United States might have to use tactical nuclear weapons in response to any Soviet military advance toward the Gulf. To add muscle to these pronouncements, the Carter administration began to build up the Rapid Deployment Force, what would eventually become CENTCOM. In the interim, the president relied heavily on naval power. Carter expanded the naval presence of the United States in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean

This redirection of U.S. national security policy was matched by an intellectual renaissance in the U.S. military. All the services began rethinking their strategy, operational concepts, tactics, and doctrine. By the early 1980s, the navy had developed what it termed the Maritime Strategy, a highly controversial concept even though it embraced the established post World War II practices of forward, offensive operations by carrier, amphibious, and attack submarine forces.

Initially this doctrine aimed at deterring the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but its application has been the result of different events and contexts. The Carter Doctrine has been applied twice; in 1990 during the First Gulf War and in 2003 for the Second Gulf War.

The Carter Doctrine was drafted to address the security of the Persian Gulf has grown in relevance after more than 50 years of American military presence in the region.

Elements of the Carter Doctrine

  • any outside force refers to a force outside collective security agreements or outside the region.
  • vital interests President Clinton's Defense Secretary William Perry said remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations: "Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to declare that the United States has vital interests in the region."
  • any means necessary means not restricted to conventional warfare, i.e. the United States was prepared to use nuclear warfare if necessary to safeguard its vital interests in the Persian Gulf.

Though the foreign policy statement warned any outside force, it was widely regarded as directed at the Soviet Union, prompted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous December. The major articulation of American strategic foreign policy interests also was intended to assure American allies in the Persian Gulf of American protection.

The problem at the time was a retracted U.S. force structure as a result of the Vietnam build down, and there was concern the United States did not have the military forces necessary to counterman a movement upon the oil wells or disruption of shipping within the region. Also the question of whether the NATO alliance was prepared or willing to participate in actions outside of Europe. If American forces were withdrawn from Europe to counterbalance a threat in the Gulf, that would leave Europe vulnerable to Soviet expansion. Thus it became alarmingly clear that American vital interests, alliance commitments, and fighting capability was almost solely dependent on nuclear weapons.


So a consensus emerged to rebuild America's conventional fighting capability, beginning with a Rapid Deployment Force, the forerunner of CENTCOM which could be deployed from the United States to the Persian Gulf in the event of an emergency, without drawing down manpower from the NATO frontline.

Subsequent presidents have used the Carter Doctrine to safeguard America's vital interests since it was first articulated.