Commentary: The U.S. commitment to the Persian Gulf is outdated

American leaders are used to paying homage to Saudi Arabia, and President Barack Obama is no exception. At a recent meeting in Washington between Obama and Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Obama again “reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”

A F/A-18E Super Hornet lands onboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf August 12, 2014. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

It’s worth questioning why Washington remains so committed to the relationship with the Saudis and other Persian Gulf states. From their autocratic governments and treatment of women, to their contributions to the spread of Islamic extremism, Washington chooses to align itself with regimes that arguably do not reflect American values or interests.

The answer to this question lies in a 36-year-old policy first articulated by President Jimmy Carter. In his 1980 State of the Union address, Carter pledged to protect the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, stating that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought Soviet forces “close to the Straits of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world's oil must flow… that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.”

Carter went on to define the oil-rich Gulf as a vital interest of the United States, and promised to defend American interests there “by any means necessary, including military force.”

Since the so-called “Carter Doctrine” was enunciated, every American president has treated the Gulf as a vital interest for Washington. Even Obama – despite his desire to extricate the United States from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – has paid homage to the need for the American military to protect Gulf oil flows “to ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.”

However, the world has changed in the decades since Carter first committed the United States to protect the Persian Gulf, and the next U.S. president should repudiate the Carter Doctrine and draw down the American military presence in the Gulf.


First and foremost, cost. American taxpayers pay a fortune to keep approximately 30,000 American troops and numerous ships and aircraft based in the Gulf. Estimates of the cost of the American military presence there run anywhere from $50 billion to $90 billion per year, and one analyst estimates the United States spent $6.8 trillion between 1980 and 2007 to keep oil flowing from the Gulf.

Those funds are badly needed elsewhere. Washington’s total debt now exceeds $19 trillion – more than 100 percent of GDP – while the United States’ aging population means the costs of entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare are on an unsustainable course. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the United States’ infrastructure a D+ grade, citing "a pressing need for modernization" involving the spending of $3.6 trillion by 2020. There are ample financial reasons to scale back the American presence in the Gulf.

Luckily for the United States, changes in the global energy markets now make this possible. Thanks to the fracking boom, American drillers can now extract oil from shale rock, making massive new supplies of domestic oil accessible. Two years ago the United States overtook Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer, and as a result, in 2015, the United States imported only 24 percent of the oil it used, the lowest since 1970.

Moreover, the source of American oil imports has also evolved over recent decades. Imports from the Persian Gulf have dropped precipitously, and are projected to fall a further 80 percent by 2025 to only 300,000 barrels per day, disappearing entirely in subsequent years. Meanwhile, the share of oil imported from Canada has soared, more than doubling in the last 20 years.   

And, according to a recent White House study, the United States’ consumption of oil was lower in 2014 than it was in 1997, despite the fact that the American economy is 50 percent larger. This is credited to increased fuel efficiency and alternative energy sources. A number of analysts estimate the United States will achieve oil self-sufficiency by 2030.

Even if – for the sake of argument – Persian Gulf oil still needs protecting, the United States should volunteer China and other Asian countries for the job. The United States only obtains 16 percent of its imported oil from the Gulf, while China – which passed the United States as the world’s largest oil importer – now imports over 70 percent of its oil from the region. In essence then, the United States is subsidizing the energy security of Washington’s primary economic and geopolitical competitor in the 21st century. This makes no sense, and if any arrangement would qualify as one of Donald Trump’s “bad deals” for the United States, it’s this one.

The Carter Doctrine arguably played some role in dragging the United States into three wars in the region. To be clear, oil was only one factor contributing to American interventions, and it’s an overstatement to describe Washington’s military actions in the Persian Gulf as “wars for oil.” Nevertheless, it’s worth wondering whether the United States would have been willing to spend blood and treasure in the Gulf if not for the Carter Doctrine and the country’s historical addiction to imported oil.

It’s time for Washington to treat the Persian Gulf as a peripheral interest – and the next president should start by stating that the Carter Doctrine no longer remains American policy.

About the Author

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He tweets @jkc_in_dc The opinions expressed are his own.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.