In the years since World War II, Presidents have often been accused of "lacking a policy," but we have seen a proliferation of presidential doctrines. The Truman Doctrine of 1947, which grew out of the necessity to resist Stalinist incursions upon Greece and Turkey, was elevated to a declaration of global ideological warfare against communism. The Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957 declared the United States prepared to use armed force to assist Middle Eastern nations threatened by "international communism." The Nixon Doctrine of 1969 called for the use of regional surrogates to bar the gates to communism and protect American interests. Now in 1980, we have the Carter Doctrine, stating that "an attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States," to repel which the United States would employ "any means necessary, including military force."
There is an important difference between a policy and a doctrine. A policy is good for as long as it works or is needed, whereupon, without undue difficulty, it can be altered or discarded. When a policy is finished, it is not the end of an "era"; it is merely the end of an approach that has outlived its usefulness. A doctrine, by contrast, is for the ages, and is neither easily nor safely trifled with, even when it has outlived its usefulness or acquired unintended meanings. With their bias toward the ideological and the broadly geopolitical, doctrines tend to generalize beyond the warrant of ascertainable facts, tempting us to discount local conditions and special circumstances. The trouble is, as Vietnam and Iran have shown, that purely local circumstances often determine the success or failure of grand geopolitical or ideological doctrines.
The hazard of the Carter Doctrine, as spelled out in the State of the Union address of January 23, 1980, is not in the President's pledge to protect our vital interests in the Persian Gulf, but in the assumption, without clear or convincing evidence, that our interests are now threatened by a Soviet grand strategy "to consolidate a strategic position...that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil." Four highly plausible possibilities are thus ignored: that the Soviets may have no such grand strategy; that threats to our interests may arise from other, local sources; that detente with the Soviets and securing our interests in the Gulf can be mutually reinforcing; and that the countries of the Persian Gulf region, as well as our historic allies, must be consulted before the United States develops a doctrine or embarks on military intervention related to their interests.
The Carter Administration cannot be held primarily responsible for the explosion of anti-Americanism that accompanied the Islamic revolution in Iran. That was the result of a policy, going back to World War II, of treating Iran as an object in the geopolitics of the Middle East, without regard to its own preferences. The shah and his lieutenants played a crucial role in the high-stakes game of strategy and oil, but the Iranian people were shut out of the game. Cut loose from their traditional religious and social moorings, their expectations aroused by the sudden, glittering affluence of a privileged segment of their society, and alienated by the pretensions and oppressiveness of the imperial regime, the Iranian people became a receptive audience not only to the agitations of thousands of young people the shah had sent abroad for their education, primarily in America, but also to the smuggled-in teachings of a charismatic, exiled cleric.
Although the Carter Administration cannot be blamed for the consequences of past misjudgments, it can quite properly be asked to account for its general unprofessionalism surrounding the admission of the shah to the United States and the consequent seizure of the American hostages in Tehran. The shah was admitted to the United States despite warnings from various sources, including the American charge in Tehran, Bruce Laingen, that it would be dangerous to do so without special measures to protect the embassy or remove American personnel. No convincing case has ever been made that the shah could have been treated only in New York, or that American doctors and equipment could not have been flown to Mexico City. Professor James Still, an expert on Iran at the University of Texas, commented in November 1979, after the hostages had been seized, that although the Iranians had warned us repeatedly about the shah, "we did nothing to assuage their desperate fear of a linkage between the shah and the Administration to plot his return. They cannot forget the CIA plot that ousted Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and returned the shah to his throne." The Administration's patience after the embassy was seized won support from the public and Congress, but there remains the question of whether the hostage crisis need have occurred.
By invading Afghanistan in the last week of December 1979, the Russians rescued the Administration, at least temporarily, from pressure to account for its handling of Iran. The two events merged into a full-fledged Cold War crisis, in which the Russians at least temporarily displaced the Ayatollah Khomeini as the principal author of mischief in southwest Asia. The President called the Soviet action "the most serious threat to the peace since the second World War," and the Administration for the time being lost interest in retaliatory acts against Iran, urged the Iranians to recognize that the real danger to them came from the Soviet Union, and said that the Iranians might receive American military and economic support against the Soviet threat if they released the hostages. All but forgotten was the President's statement to congressional leaders on November 27, 1979, that even the freeing of the hostages "will not wipe the slate clean" with Iran. "We have no basic quarrel with the nation, the revolution, or the people of Iran," the President said on January 21, 1980. "The threat to them comes not from American policy but from Soviet actions in the region. We are prepared to work with the government of Iran to develop a new and mutually beneficial relationship." The hostage crisis was thus reduced, in the Administration's rhetoric, from a supreme challenge to American honor and interests to distraction from the real issue of Soviet aggression and expansion. Only when the Ayatollah Khomeini, in the wake of repeated efforts at propitiation by the President, came down strongly on the side of the militants and against President Bani-Sadr's efforts to arrange a transfer of the American hostages to government control did President Carter announce a formal breach of diplomatic relations and order a ban on exports to Iran, pressure our allies to employ sanctions, and finally launch the abortive rescue attempt.