Jimmy Carter
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jimmy Carter may be the one to blame if President Trump goes to war with Iran, thanks to his handed-down Carter Doctrine.

The 94-year old ex-president is recovering from a turkey shoot hip injury, but while he was in the White House refusing to pardon Thanksgiving turkeys, he changed the course of America’s Iran policy.

Carter asserted that any nation trying to control the Persian Gulf or restrict the free-flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz was acting against America’s “vital interests.” Carter articulated this message near the end of his presidency and at a time when revolutionary Iran held the United States hostage and the Soviets militarily occupied Afghanistan.

The message to Iran and the USSR was clear: Make a move on the neighborhood, mess with shipping, slow the flow of oil and risk going to war with the United States.

Carter’s trademark toothy smile was absent as he stood before Congress delivering his 1980 State of the Union address. Instead, Carter bared his teeth at an Ayatollah Khomeini who was holding American embassy personnel prisoners and encouraging the burning of Old Glory. He was a mullah mulling the shutdown of Persian Gulf oil tanker traffic. The world was in bad shape when it came to energy, with America suffering heating oil shortages. In 1980, an Iranian revolutionary cleric could credibly threaten to stop cars from moving and air conditioners from whirring in the summer. Longer gas lines and colder winter homes were planned-for worst-case scenarios.

Carter delivered a hardline State of the Union message in a year when his presidency was challenged not only by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, but also by a tough-talking Ronald Reagan. Politically outflanked on the dovish left by Kennedy and the hawkish right by Reagan, Carter needed to show that he was tough on Iran and willing to defend American interests with military force. He was navigating treacherous political waters at home and treading onto dangerous geopolitical territory.

The resulting 1980 Carter Doctrine has found a contemporary fan in John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser. Bolton is keen to assert the doctrine and to leverage Trump’s diplomatic instincts toward “maximum pressure”—a policy that is already putting American forces in harm’s neighborhood—and potentially in harm’s way.

Like a bar bully, Bolton sees the value of sticking out his chin and daring Iran to hit him first, knowing full well that he has a bunch of guys with guns ready to back him up once the first punch is thrown. As Fox News host Tucker Carlson put it, ”John Bolton would love to have a war with Iran.”

There is renewed swagger in Mike Pompeo’s State Department and rejuvenated bluster in Bolton’s “fight club” NSC. But it would be best to leave the heightened testosterone at the gym than to bring it to the bar. Somebody might just throw a sucker punch and, the next thing you know, America could find itself in an all-out regional brawl. Nobody wins in such a fight. The president knows that. Bolton should, too.

Here’s the problem: Standing down is a lot harder than escalating up to a showdown. Bolton’s many years in government have taught him that getting a president to dare an adversary to bring it on is a leader unlikely to step away from a brewing fight. Bolton has created the conditions to jam up the president, giving POTUS fewer options and less room to maneuver. He knows what he is doing and he knows that there is always a political price to pay when America walks away. Bolton has calculated that Trump might be swayed by this calculation, but he has failed to understand a fundamental truth about the president. He does not want a fight. It’s expensive and it’s foolish.

It might be that the recent military escalation in the Gulf is simply political theater, just another high-stakes, well-armed public performance of “good cop, bad cop,” with Bolton in the lead role of the black hat. If so, this is an immature and dangerous game play in a volatile region that has already gobbled up too much of America’s blood and treasure.

This is not 1980s America. The United States has since diversified its energy resources and become nearly self-sufficient. Iran is not an existential threat. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The Carter Doctrine is dead.

As a naval carrier strike group and bombers position themselves in and around the Persian Gulf to up the pressure on Iran, we should recognize that a presidential doctrine developed nearly 40 years ago has become irrelevant and downright dangerous today. It would be folly to follow.

Partial blame will inevitably go to President Carter for developing a now-outdated reactionary blueprint that still defines the rules of American engagement in the Persian Gulf. If Bolton’s bellicose maneuvers result in the bang-bang, however, there ultimately will be only one person to blame: President Donald J. Trump.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).