What role does the Eastern Mediterranean play in America’s global strategy? “Strategy? What strategy?” is the answer that most readily rolls off the tongue. In the aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal, America’s Mediterranean allies are hard pressed to identify consistent principles guiding Washington’s hand.  They wonder whether the decision to abandon the fight against the Taliban portends an even more tumultuous retreat from the entire Middle East. Feeling exposed and vulnerable, they see chaos on the rise and no serious remedy for it. 

But even chaos has a form. Although a coherent American strategy is not obvious, the larger factors that are shaping President Biden’s approach are clear enough. These factors are three in number, and the first of them is, of course, the strategic pivot toward China and East Asia.

A quiet revolution has taken place in Washington. From the end of the Cold War until yesterday, the American military was certain that it outmatched any adversary on earth. It possessed the ability to assert air superiority over any potential theater of conflict and, within relatively short order, to dispatch overwhelming firepower to that theater.  Victory in war thus hinged on one factor and one factor alone: political will.

Rosy assessments of Chinese intentions only deepened America’s military confidence.  Although China was rising, and although it constituted the most dangerous adversary on the horizon, Washington convinced itself that Beijing so benefitted from the American order that it had no intention of overturning it. Dashed on the rocks of manmade islands in the South China Sea, that sense of unchallenged primacy is now gone forever.

American military planners realize that if China were to storm Taiwan, the United States could very well lose the ensuing war. Such a defeat would severely diminish American prestige globally. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley adopted a grim tone when, at a recent public forum, he addressed the gathering threat.  “One of the largest shifts in global geo-strategic power the world has witnessed” is currently underway, he explained, stressing that the contest is not limited to the South China Sea. The Chinese, he said, are “becoming extraordinarily powerful,” and they intend “to revise the international order to their advantage.”

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States faced a similar threat. The proximity of the Soviet Union to Western Europe gave Moscow a military advantage in that theater. If not countered adroitly, the Soviet Union could exploit that advantage to weaken the American-led order globally.  But deterring a Soviet attack by conventional means would have necessitated a permanent wartime mobilization—a nonstarter in domestic politics. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, therefore, developed a multidimensional approach to deterrence, one that supplemented conventional military power with a nuclear weapons doctrine that discouraged escalation by the Soviets. And it also made use of creative diplomatic and economic initiatives.

In short, the Americans discovered the art of geopolitics. Washington searched out states that—thanks to their history, culture, and geography—were naturally resistant to Soviet domination, and it looked for ways to help stiffen their resistance. The Truman Doctrine, which turned the United States into the dominant actor in the Eastern Mediterranean, was the inaugural effort of this kind. In 1947, a full two years before the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, President Truman sought and received Congressional approval to support the militaries of two historically antagonistic powers: Greece and Turkey. Washington quickly came to understand that mediating between Athens and Ankara but cooperating with both in the Cold War were fundamental duties of a superpower.

Today, however, eagerness in Washington to shoulder those duties is waning. It’s not that the Americans have entirely forgotten the art of geopolitics. Their support for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “Quad,” comprising the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, demonstrates that they still have a knack for knitting together actors with little history of cooperation among them. But the members of the Quad feel the hot breath of China on the back of their necks.  While Greece and Turkey felt the hot breath of the Soviet Union on their necks in 1947, they are far removed from today’s epicenter of global competition, the Pacific. They are therefore a secondary concern in Washington.

The rise of “restraintism,” the second major factor influencing Biden’s Mediterranean policy, has done nothing to elevate either them or their region on the American agenda. The last three presidents have been elected on platforms calling for an end to unwanted wars in the Middle East. Influential constituencies in both parties and among political independents favor a lower military profile on the world stage. Despite the political differences among them, the restraintists share a lack of patience for terms such as “geostrategy,” “deterrence,” and “containment”—words that, to the restraintist ear, all sound like “slippery slope to war.” They call for foreign powers to sort out their own problems, come what may—an attitude that was clearly on display in Biden’s ill-starred withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Biden’s major gambit in the Middle East, namely, the appeasement of Iran, is the third major factor shaping his policy toward the Eastern Mediterranean. Not only does appeasement push the region further down the administration’s priorities list, but it is also harmful to the national interest.

Appeasement includes not just the dogged effort to return to the Iran nuclear deal but also a simultaneous initiative to compel traditional allies to approach Iran in a spirit of “dialogue, de-escalation, and diplomacy.” The strategic goal of appeasement is to transform Tehran into a partner for stabilizing the hotspots in the Arab world: Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Israeli-Palestinian arena. 

This gambit is based on two key assumptions: 1) Iran is a status quo power; and 2) “the allies are the problem,” as then Vice President Biden stated in 2014 when discussing Syria.  In other words, America’s allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, are fearful of Iran and hostile toward her. The United States, for its part, has been excessively mindful of these fears and overly supportive of the aggressive policies that they spawn. As a result, it has become deeply embroiled in an utterly unnecessary conflict with the Islamic Republic. A more subtle and sophisticated American diplomacy will seek instead to benefit from the overlapping interests that supposedly exist between Tehran and Washington.

In addition to being terrible, horrible, no good and very bad, these assumptions are entirely false. The Islamic Republic is inveterately hostile to the American-led order.  Appeasement, no matter how generous, will never satiate Tehran. Nevertheless, the Iran gambit is also surprisingly seductive. For one thing, it is geostrategic—at least in style, if not in substance.  To its sponsors, it feels bold, innovative, and responsible. Moreover, it plays well at home. Especially in progressive circles, it generates the soothing belief that it is possible to achieve more peace and stability in the Middle East by doing less militarily. “More with less” is a beguiling slogan for leaders who aim to strike a balance between competing with China and respecting the will of a restraintist electorate.

But while appeasement is a soothing balm to progressive American souls, it is a torment to traditional allies. It spreads chaos in an already unstable region, and its failure is foretold. The only thing that remains unclear is the magnitude of the failure. When the lead balloon comes crashing down, will the administration recognize the disaster for what it is? And if recognition does come, how much of the American position in the Middle East will remain to be salvaged?

Given the relative weakness of Iran compared to the United States, talk of the destruction of the American position may be a tad overwrought—but only a tad, because the challenge to American primacy in the Middle East is not coming from Iran alone.  The champions of the appeasement policy are doubly deluded. They have persuaded themselves not only that a strategic accommodation with Tehran is possible but that, in addition, China and the United States can also work in harmony with respect to Iran. After a contentious meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Anchorage last March, Secretary of State Blinken searched for a silver lining. “On Iran,” he said, “our interests intersect.”

That assessment fails to digest the full implications of what General Milley recognized, namely, that Beijing is building a China-centric world.  It seeks to replace the American-led order in the Middle East, and it is cooperating with Iran (and Russia too) to achieve this goal. Beijing recently signed a 25-year strategic understanding with Tehran, which entails the export of Iranian oil to China in return for massive Chinese investment in Iran, including in areas of defense and intelligence.

The connection between this agreement and China’s military standoff with the United States in the South China Sea is not hard to discern. The Chinese economy is overwhelmingly dependent on oil supplies that either originate in the Middle East or transit through it. American military primacy in the region means that, in time of war, the United States can, with ease, press its thumb against the windpipe of the Chinese economy.  Beijing’s long-term goal in the Middle East, therefore, is to amputate America’s thumb. Iranian power is one of the knives that China will use for this operation.

But the Biden administration has yet to realize that it is being prepped for surgery. Like the Obama team, it adopts a utopian approach to Middle East policy formulation. It starts by imagining a glittering future in which China, Russia, and Iran will partner with the United States to stabilize the Middle East. It then sets to work selling that beautiful vision to those it has nominated as future partners. But with such cynical actors as China, Russia, and Iran, a dystopian approach is the wiser course of action.  It calls for imagining a very dark future, one filled with sinister cooperation among America’s adversaries. Then it seeks to prevent that dark vision from ever becoming reality—through the art of geostrategy. Imagine, for example, if Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran were to orchestrate conflicts in Asia, Europe and the Persian Gulf simultaneously—with the goal of overloading American capacity and tarnishing American prestige. How will the United States thwart such cooperation?

Obviously, each actor must be deterred in his own neighborhood. In the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, China’s military presence is not yet a major threat. The question thus becomes: Which allies can help deter Russia and Iran? Three primary candidates present themselves: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Each has an indispensable role to play, but thanks to its history, geography, and size, Turkey has a very special attribute: it is a natural counterbalance to both Russia and Iran.

In recent years, however, Turkish-American relations have been strained, as have relations between Turkey and key American allies such as Greece, France, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  The grand strategic priority, therefore, should be to place American-Turkish relations on a stable footing and to mediate between Turkey and each of its detractors.

In recent months, President Biden has moved policy in the right direction. On the sidelines of the two-day G20 summit in Italy in October, he met with Turkish President Erdoğan and agreed on the formation of a “joint mechanism” to strengthen and improve bilateral ties. Exactly what this phrase means is not clear, but increased consultation has already resulted. Meanwhile, a spirit of reconciliation has also been spreading among Turkey and some of its regional antagonists. The spirit is most evident among the leaders of the UAE. Until recently, they were Turkey’s harshest critics but now would seem to have buried the hatchet. Small but hopeful signs are also evident in relations between Turkey and Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

The Iran gambit, however, is impeding progress. While Biden’s appeasement of Iran threatens Turkey less directly than it threatens, say, Saudi Arabia and Israel, it is nevertheless harmful.  In addition to its many other faults, it is a profound waste of time. Senior administration officials have burned up countless hours in an ignominious courtship of a decrepit terror regime that has conducted an asymmetric campaign against the United States and its allies for four decades, and that will never work effectively with Washington. Those hours would have been more productively devoted to improving relations with Turkey, which for seven decades has served faithfully as a pillar of the American order. Turkey has fought with the United States in numerous military operations, including Bosnia, Somalia, and Afghanistan. It has allowed use of its territory for military bases and intelligence installations. Under the American security umbrella, it can continue to shelter comfortably—provided the two sides devote the efforts necessary to reach a new understanding for a new era.

But there is little hope the administration will abandon its quixotic quest for a strategic accommodation with Iran. Given this fact, with respect to Turkey the first principle of American policy should be “Do no harm” – do nothing that will worsen relations. With that thought in mind, the most pressing next step is to grant Ankara’s request to purchase new F-16s and modernization kits for the older F-16s that the Turkish Air Force currently flies. This initiative is a fallback position that Turkey took after it acquired the Russian S-400 missile defense systems, a move that prompted the United States to expel it from the F-35 program. The F-16 deal is working its way through the convoluted Foreign Military Sales process, which is subject to approval by Congress, where significant opposition will doubtless emerge.

Turkey needs the upgrade to keep pace with the modernization of the Greek military, which is in line to receive the F-35, and which has recently signed a defense pact with France that is obviously directed at Turkey. If Congress rejects the F-16 upgrade, Ankara will have no choice but to look elsewhere to modernize its air force. Russia will certainly be waiting with an offer.

If the Turks should choose to work with Moscow to upgrade their planes, then the rift between Washington and Ankara will widen severely. Defense cooperation has always been the foundation of the Turkish-American relationship. If it should come to an end, all the problems in Turkish-American relations will grow harder to manage. The powers that will benefit the most from such a deep rift are China, Russia, and Iran.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. When the Truman Doctrine first brought America into the Mediterranean, officials in Washington understood that the job of the United States was to serve as a buffer between Greece and Turkey. Making both feel secure was the key to thwarting Russian efforts to gain a foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean.  The logic that guided America’s hand then is the logic that should guide it now.

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