Blame Carter

Much ink has been spilt on the supposedly new emergence of imperial aims in American foreign policy, including jeremiads about how everything has changed post-9/11. In a sweeping essay in the Wilson Quarterly (“The Real World War IV“)–something of a precis to his new book, The New American Militarism–Andrew Bacevich carefully demonstrates thst American foreign policy, with respect to the middle east, really hasn’t changed since the twilight of the Carter administration. Bacevich suggests two key factors that contributed to the current excesses of “American militarism”:

First, American militarism isn’t all that “new”: ever since Vietnam, he suggests, Americans–on both left and right–have been infatuated with American military might. “Militarism insinuated itself into American life.”

But second, one can see a kind of chemical reaction between this deepening militarism with respect to foreign policy and a very particular domestic interest: preserving the “American dream.” This “American way of life” revolves around automobiles, and so one of the most important elements required to maintain this culture is perpetual access to cheap oil. So if we want to understand “the rising tide of American bellicosity that culminated in March 2003,” Bacevich remarks, “we must look as well to national interests and, indeed, to the utlimate U.S. interest, which is the removal of any obstacles or encumbrances that might hinder the American people in their pursuit of happiness.”

Ironically, the first “villain” in this narrative is not one of many hawkish Republicans, but the timid southern evangelical, Jimmy Carter. Though Carter also represents a missed opportunity.

On July 15, 1979, Carter–seeing that American’s increased addiction to foreign oil [at the time the US imported 43% of it’s oil; today it’s 56%]–delivered a national address that offered an almost prophetic critique of American consumption. Americans, he warned, had come to worship self-indulgent consumption of material goods as the way to define themselves. This, he suggested, stemmed from a “mistaken idea of freedom” understood merely as self-interest, to which he contrasted a “true freedom” which sought “the path of common purpose” and mitigated self-interested hoarding of resources. And then he uttered a notion that was–and very much is–a taboo for the “American way of life”: he told American’s that they must make sacrifices. He called on Americans to restrict their use of energy resources, to park their cars one day a week, to pursue alternative sources of energy, and to just generally put a cap on their consumption.

The message landed like a lead balloon, and within just a few months, fighting for his political life, Carter made an about-face and articulated what would come to be known as the “Carter Doctrine”: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region,” he declared, “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.”

It was Jimmy Carter, then, who declared World War IV. And it seems that any who disagree with the current rendition of American militarism in the middle east can only excuse themselves if they also reject the Carter Doctrine. But that, of course, will require a people who are willing to forego a culture of consumption. I’m not too hopeful that “America” is very interested in that. But it might be that within America we could find new monastic communities with the resources and will to do so.