How Important Is the Mediterranean in American Strategic Thinking?

Friday, January 10, 2020

In posing this question, the Hoover Institution advanced both a major and a minor subject. The major issue is defining what passes as strategic thinking in America; the minor subject is the role of the Mediterranean within that context.

American Strategic Thinking. After the Soviet Union fell apart, the communal spirit that infused Democratic and Republican administrations fractured. To be sure, that spirit had frequently seemed to splinter, especially in the case of opposition to the Vietnam War. But by and large, there was a consensus within Congress and successive administrations to act internationally on behalf of core American interests. Notably, this meant confronting the Soviet Union as the other global superpower that possessed both the military power and the ideology to constitute an existential threat. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, America lacked a perceived adversary that demanded a unity of defense, despite domestic political differences.

At the same time, America’s military and economic power had grown immensely. So too had the steady accretion of foreign policy control within the White House. This meant that one person—the president—could willy-nilly commit the entire nation to courses of action with ill-defined end states and scant assessment of risk. President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan without insisting that the military implement a campaign to destroy al-Qaeda. When al-Qaeda escaped into Pakistan, President Bush changed the mission to one of building a democratic nation. Similarly, he ordered the invasion of Iraq with no plan for ending the mission after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. In similar fashion, President Barack Obama signed an agreement with a hostile Iran that committed America, while refusing to submit the agreement to the Senate. Where President Bush was evangelical in viewing America’s global role, President Obama suggested that America historically had acted as a colonial overlord whose power had to be curtailed.

These two separate fonts of strategic thinking were summarily staunched by the election of President Trump, whose global view was based upon transactions rather than values or interpretations of history. Rather, foreign policy was defined as a matter of quid pro quos in place of steadfast alliances or enduring principles. To President Trump, safeguarding the economic interests of the nation constituted a paramount duty. Conversely, his opponents for election seemed intent upon transforming or deconstructing the free market system, while uttering scarcely a word about America’s foreign policy. Indeed, their emotional antagonism toward President Trump renders null and void any consensus about foreign or domestic policy.

There are two overarching points. First, American strategic thinking about foreign and domestic policy has come loose from its moorings. Second, strategic thinking is driven more by the occupants and staff in the White House than by any national consensus and is episodic, changing with elections.

The Importance of the Mediterranean. Under the current administration, strategic thinking about the Mediterranean is focused upon maintaining a warm emotional relationship with Israel. All else seems secondary. ISIS has been deprived of a sanctuary in devastated Syria. Whether America retains sufficient forces in Syria to protect those Kurds and Sunnis who fought with us against ISIS is problematic. When the president off-handedly declared he was pulling out all our troops, Secretary of Defense Mattis resigned. The resulting furor caused the president to backtrack, but that was due to political pressure, not to a change in strategic thought. There is no policy concerning Syria. The same is true in Iraq. As for Turkey, President Erdogan seems intent upon emerging as a pivotal, non-aligned force among the Sunni states in the Middle East. As is the case with Syria, America has no policy, let alone strategic thinking about how to deal with this development. America is drifting.