With the brilliant vision of hindsight, it is quite clear that Vietnam has one overriding lesson for American leaders: our democracy cannot successfully wage a major or protracted war that is not firmly supported by most Americans. The Carter-Reagan Doctrine on the Persian Gulf, however, threatens to commit the Vietnam blunder in a more extreme form and with potentially far more dangerous consequences.
The clearest indication of this blunder is that few Americans even know about this doctrine, so they can hardly be firmly committed to it. Yet both administrations have threatened, by this doctrine, to involve us in a far bigger war than Vietnam.
Jimmy Carter firmly pledged the US government to defend the Persian Gulf oil suppliers. He began to develop a hugely expensive Rapid Deployment Force and dispatched military forces, primarily in the form of carrier task forces, to the area to carry out this pledge. He did so without major debate in the news media or in Congress. As a result, the issues were never clarified, the rationales for this extreme commitment were never publicly accepted, and public support was never garnered.
Ronald Reagan first denounced this pledge as "clumsy and ill-advised," because we are far from having the military forces ready to carry it out. But later, in his press conference of October 1, 1981, he declared unequivocally that "there's no way that we could stand by" and let anyone "shut off that oil."
Most important, the Reagan administration has moved quietly but very aggressively to build up US forces for possible use in the Middle East. As Gerald Seib recently reported in the Wall Street Journal:
Less than three years after President Carter announced a commitment to defend the Persian Gulf, the U.S. has gained a beachhead, with troops and bases, in key areas of the Mideast.
The most important development will come next year, when the Pentagon establishes a new unified command, known as the Southwest Asia Command, to replace the Rapid Development Force. This new command will eventually include several hundred thousand U.S. troops, who will be available for any Mideast emergency.
US expenditures on military construction in the region jumped from $147.6 million in 1981 to $504.5 million in 1982. Much of this has gone to build a huge air base at Ra's Banas in Egypt to receive or ferry the Rapid Deployment Force. Several thousand troops and Pentagon civilians are already stationed in the region.
In November 1982 the US and Turkish governments signed an agreement calling for the United States to enlarge present Turkish military bases, build new ones, and airlift troops to the bases in a crisis. In 1982 the Reagan administration gave Turkey $700 million in aid; $815 million is planned for 1983.
On January 12 Metin Demirsar reported in the Wall Street Journal from Istanbul that with the secrecy surrounding the bases, "some Turks suspect the bases eventually will become staging points for the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force.…The military-base agreement also leads some Turks to fear that their country could be dragged into a conflict with either the Soviet Union or Iran if large numbers of U.S. troops were deployed in Turkey."
There is good reason to believe the Reagan administration is purposefully pursuing an extremely "low media profile" on this build-up to avoid public opposition both in the Middle East and in the United States. In an interview with the Economist, Henry Kissinger recently called for a very "subtle and non-public" build-up of US military force in the Gulf region to protect the "moderate Arab" (that is, OPEC) states against any threat from within, from Iran or "radical Arabs," or even from the Soviet Union:
The moderate Arab states of the Gulf must be looking now for opportunities for greater co-operation with the United States.…The countries in the Gulf have to understand that we are prepared to protect both their domestic structure and their frontiers; and they need to be given confidence in the means which we will use. It would be extraordinarily desirable if we could repress our tendency for publicity, and if our military could restrain their compulsion to establish a visible presence.…I think what we need is installations into which we could move rapidly; a physical presence near the Gulf that is plausible; and a demonstration of how we could reinforce this presence. And we must generate a credible capability for rapid support against internal upheaval. The embrace must be real and serious, but as subtle and non-public as possible.
A few commentators, notably Drew Middleton in the New York Times and Hodding Carter III in the Wall Street Journal, have recently decried the almost total lack of news coverage of the ferocious Iraq-Iran war that is destabilizing the entire Gulf. They rightly blame this silence mainly on the news media but fail to note how greatly this de facto news blackout is complemented by the almost total lack of any reference by any administration official to the war, to its dangers, to the Soviet military build-up around Iran (see below), or to our own build-up in the region.
The Carter-Reagan Doctrine is now being pursued aggressively, with extremely little debate, almost no public awareness, and hence little public acceptance. There is every reason to believe that, if any administration did try to live up to this pledge, we Americans would immediately refuse far more effectively than we did in Vietnam. The "low profile" might well be crucial in getting us into an Arabian war, but it would also be crucial in undermining any fighting of the war and would thereby further erode the credibility of our global defense strategy.
As Napoleon noted, in (conventional) war, moral factors are three times as important as physical force. In military strategy, moral means all nonforce factors, but morality is surely one of the most powerful. Of all our moral mistakes in Vietnam, the fact that we were always sacrificing American lives and the lives of Vietnamese peasants in support of corrupt South Vietnamese officials was probably the worst. Supporting them was not our purpose, but doing it for whatever "practical" reason proved a monumental mistake—totally impractical.
"Do you want your son to die for OPEC?" If there is ever a serious move to deliver on the Carter-Reagan pledge, that question and very similar ones will be on the hundreds of thousands of placards at anti-OPEC demonstrations around the country.
Today our politicians routinely refer to the Persian Gulf sheikhs of OPEC as "pro-Western" and "friends of the West." But where did they ever get the absurd idea that the greedy ringleaders of the OPEC cartel are our friends? They are the worst economic enemies we have ever had. The great majority of Americans know this.
Any war to support OPEC's ringleaders will produce instantaneous moral outrage from most Americans. And the memory of Vietnam will lead to massive organization against any step-by-step involvement and any political deception.
As in Vietnam, some young men from the south and southwest will go along, but the vast majority of our sons will never fight for OPEC. I know many college and high school students; I do not know one willing to fight for OPEC. In fact, I can't think of any older Americans I know who would not be outraged at the thought of sending their sons to fight for Saudi Arabia. I haven't even bothered to ask my many Jewish friends.
Regardless of morality, some local wars are justified by appeal to global strategy or material interests. That was the argument in favor of supporting corrupt South Vietnamese. I believe the argument was, on balance, wrong; but the "domino theory" was a serious and legitimate one. The argument that we need the corrupt OPEC sheikhs is not nearly so strong.
In an excellent article in REASON in February 1982, "Should We Spill Blood over Oil?" Laurence Beilenson and Kevin Lynch note that we get less than 25 percent of our oil imports from the Gulf. This is less than 8 percent of our total energy consumption and is shrinking rapidly. We could, without losing one life and at low cost, increase our general national security by increasing our oil stockpile to a year's supply. We could also shift our oil purchases entirely to Mexico, Nigeria, and many other nations that would eagerly sell us enough oil under long-term contracts to offset all our Persian Gulf imports. OPEC needs us; we do not need them.
Europeans get roughly 50 percent of their total oil from the Gulf. They could develop their vast gas reserves in the North Sea to offset this, but they refuse to do so. They too could stockpile enough oil but refuse to do so. They are developing gas lines from the USSR to offset their Gulf imports, and they furiously reject our American opposition to that move. Not a single European nation has considered it worthwhile to support the Carter-Reagan Doctrine.
On the debits side, the arguments against the doctrine are overwhelming. The Soviets have coveted the region and its warm-water ports for centuries. They occupied the northern part of Iran during the Second World War and left only under stern pressure from the new regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the late shah of Iran. They have now invaded Afghanistan.
The Soviet Union has very powerful forces within a few hundred miles of the Gulf. The Economist recently reported that intelligence estimates show that the USSR has up to 24 divisions poised on the northern border of Iran. It has also concentrated forces in southern Afghanistan, possibly preparing for rapid deployment of its huge Military Air Transport command (with 1,700 fixed-wing aircraft and 2,000 helicopters in 1981) in a pincers movement in the Gulf region.
With the exception of four carrier task forces, our forces are thousands of miles away and most are committed to defending more vital interests, like Europe. Few Americans would choose to start a nuclear war to defend OPEC nations that have sternly refused to let us base conventional forces in their nations.
We do not know whether the Soviets will fight for the Gulf, though the risk is clear. Given the Iranian invasion of Iraq, the threat that the Holy War in Iran will spread to the Gulf is much greater. Do we have the forces on hand to stop such a war? Very likely, if we are willing to see many thousands of our sons killed and to spend hundreds of billions that we could spend on alternative energy supplies with no loss of life.
Besides, the Iranians today are in fact steadily increasing the supply of oil to the West. The OPEC Arabs of the Gulf are trying to decrease their supply to keep prices up. The Iranians are bitterly anti-Soviet and are systematically executing some pro-Soviet Iranian leftists and curtailing the operations of the Iranian Communist Tudeh party. A union of Gulf nations led by Iran might be immensely more effective as a bulwark against Soviet expansion and a supplier of more and cheaper oil to the West. Little wonder the Soviets are opposing the Iranian invasion of their ally, Iraq, with greatly increased arms shipments. A divided Gulf is far better for them than one powerful foe.
There is little chance the American public will support any enforcement of this doctrine. But there is a serious danger that our leaders, increasingly isolated in their bunkers of power on the Potomac and misled by general public support of rearmament, may make the same fatal miscalculations of the popular will that the Johnson administration did. In some future crisis situation, this could combine with their desire to save face by not reneging on their pledge to produce some rapid deployment of our forces in the Gulf. By the time public outrage was organized, we might already be faced with another Vietnam-style —or even a major war with the Soviets from which we could not back down.
The American people want rearmament to protect them and the country's vital interests, not the OPEC cartel. Our leaders must recognize the fact—"We Will Not Go!"—and exorcise the national nightmare threatened by the Carter-Reagan Doctrine and our almost secret military build-up in the region.
Jack Douglas teaches sociology at the University of California, San Diego.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Arabian Nightmare".