Faced with the toxic combination of scorched earth and minefields left behind by the Trump administration, President Biden must prioritize which foreign affairs crisis he attends to first. I nominate preventing the slow but accelerating slide into war in the Eastern Mediterranean to be at the top of his inbox. I can think of no other immediate flashpoint likely to do more damage to U.S. alliances and interests if left unattended. Furthermore, his team must ensure that any immediate measures also ensure long time stability in the region. The U.S. faces myriad challenges in the area including (but not limited to) civil wars in Libya and Syria, the encroachment of Russian and Iranian influence into the Mediterranean and the collapse of Lebanon. The one flashpoint most likely to harm vital American interests, however, would be war between Turkey and Greece, with Cyprus dragged in as well.
The immediate threat to stability in the Eastern Mediterranean emanates from Turkey, or more precisely, from President Recip Tayyip Erdogan. He has systematically undermined the same nascent democracy he midwifed fifteen or so years ago when he broke the power of the political-military complex that had long dominated Turkey. He pursues policies that weaken NATO and strengthen its enemies. His dreams of recreating a new Ottoman Empire threaten several democratic neighbors: Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the nascent democracy in Iraq. The dispute over maritime jurisdictions is a symptom not a cause. We have exaggerated the importance of the gas finds off Cyprus and Israel. Thanks to low oil and gas prices, the vaunted Trans Med pipeline will never be built. As a practical matter the gas produced will be consumed locally, either for electricity or as a feedstock for other industry. Rather, Erdogan has created a monster by reviving popular longing for a lost Empire, an Empire not remembered fondly by any of its former subject peoples.
Trump’s unexplained and inexplicable ‘bromance’ with President Erdogan certainly constitutes a ‘proximate cause’ encouraging Erdogan to believe that he would face no consequences from the United States despite pushback from the U.S. foreign policy establishment and Congress. However, we should not forget that Turkish adventurism has thrived for generations because that same foreign policy establishment for years ignored egregious Turkish conduct, mouthing slogans masquerading as geopolitical considerations, e.g., “biggest Army in NATO”, “only Muslim democracy”, “strategic location” and so forth. Erdogan has finally opened our eyes to reality. Now American policy must implement reality. Biden, however, should not pick sides between NATO allies. Rather, he must shape American policy based on American principle: protecting democracy and providing democratic countries the means to defend themselves rather than arming predatory autocracies. He must also push Europe to stand up and do its part. (Trump tried as well but botched the execution as usual.) America should support democratic countries that have no expansionist goals, observe the rule of law, and protect human rights. Supporting dictatorships because they represent ‘stability’ not only offends our values but, equally important, they do not last forever. We also need to ensure that any proposed policies have achievable objectives, that the resources devoted are sufficient but not excessive to achieving those objectives with a doable time horizon and, as an essential factor, can be understood and accepted by the American public. Failing to meet those objectives, as we have seen over the last 75 years, merely postpones inevitable disasters that cost far more to fix than if we had done it right the first time.
Biden’s foreign policy team should make it clear that Erdogan’s behavior has undermined Turkey’s value as a NATO ally. Incirlik Air Base may be convenient, but we should be prepared to close it if Turkey’s behavior does not change. We should also lift the terrorism designation of the PKK, the Kurdish militant organization and begin talking to them instead. (As former Secretary of State Pompeo’s recent fiasco in Yemen demonstrated, we have too often made such ‘terrorism’ designations as a favor to countries that have killed far more innocent civilians than the organizations we label as terrorists. We should not stop reminding Turkey’s people that we find Erdogan’s mass incarcerations and attacks on press and religious freedoms incompatible with America’s interests. Coddling Erdogan did not encourage democracy or cooperation in Turkey; perhaps we should give the cold shoulder a chance to work.
The United States should simultaneously take steps to strengthen the security of countries under threat. Pompeo only partly lifted the old ban on military sales to Cyprus. It should be lifted entirely, and Cyprus treated like any other like-minded democracy. Biden should agree to Greece’s request to buy some of the F35 5th generation fighter planes originally destined for Turkey. Given Greece’s still threatened budget, we should sell the aircraft on generous terms. Turkey must be denied the capacity to threaten war when it seeks to extort its neighbors. Neither Athens nor Nicosia have any interest in attacking Turkey. At a relatively cheap price for the United States, such actions ensure a military balance that prevents war. We can apply such policies to Iraq, as well. Strengthening the Iraqi military should go a long way to strengthen Iraqi democracy, deterring Turkish mischief and reducing dependence on Iran.
Of course, other ongoing crises in the region such as the civil wars in Libya and Syria and long-term open sores such as the dictatorship in Egypt, the implosion of Lebanon, and the perennial conflict between Palestinians and Israelis over a small land both call home need attention. However, none have the potential to dramatically harm American interests as does the potential for war between NATO allies.