“Restraint” in Action: America and the Eastern Mediterranean

by February 2022
U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House. Photo credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis.

A year can seem like a long time, especially if it is 2022. It is easy to forget that one of the Biden administration’s first foreign policy crisis was in the Eastern Mediterranean: the return of violence to the Israel–Palestine conflict in May 2021. Some saw in it a pattern indicating how President Biden and his team would approach international challenges—with detachment bordering on diffidence and a desire to conserve resources and avoid commitments. For me, having spent most of two decades as a US diplomat in the Eastern Mediterranean, the episode merely conformed to the pattern of gradual American disengagement from a region that was once vital to US interests.

Calls for foreign policy “restraint” are mounting as America searches for ways to cope with new challenges and set aside bad habits of the past. As a general matter, I share the views of Andrew Bacevich and others associated with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, the flagship of restraint policy advocacy (though I am not personally affiliated with the Institute). The Eastern Mediterranean has evolved over the past decade as an illuminating, if imperfect, experiment in American restraint. A marked diminution in US vital interests in the region over more than 20 years, combined with competing priorities elsewhere and the presence of two reliable allies, Israel and Greece, created suitable conditions for exercising restraint.

Measured against the evolution of US action and policy in the region, Washington’s aloofness during last May’s clashes is neither surprising nor disappointing. It continues a pattern over more than two decades to deprioritize the Eastern Mediterranean region.

The experiment was not neatly designed. Many in the foreign policy establishment (aka “the Blob”) will call it a failure, pointing to Syria, Libya, and the growing Russian, Chinese, and Iranian presence. I disagree. Despite regional calamities, the experiment has been a success. Where we went wrong in the region was because we did too much, not too little; this is certainly the case in Libya and arguably in Syria as well. With an economy-of-effort approach, the US has been able to protect and even advance its limited interests.

The benefits of restraint stand out more clearly against the massive failures of Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the persistent activism of America’s militarized foreign policy over recent decades, restraint proponents ordinarily can criticize only past US national security decisions, arguing for the path not taken. Quincy Institute scholars, for example, have written extensively about US policy failures in the Middle East. In the Eastern Mediterranean, however, the path was taken, and restraint has generally prevailed. This makes the region a rare example of a different kind of American engagement, with potential relevance to other regions moving forward.

A Long Good-Bye

Measured against the evolution of US action and policy in the region, Washington’s aloofness during last May’s clashes is neither surprising nor disappointing. It continues a pattern over more than two decades to deprioritize the Eastern Mediterranean region. Steven Simon’s excellent article on Syria in the recent issue of the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune highlights an interesting example. Syria animated pundits and the foreign policy establishment for years but never truly engaged the US government and no longer engages the public mind. America’s desultory involvement in 21st century efforts (such as they are) to resolve Israeli–Palestinian differences is another case in point.

The pattern of disengagement is more evident still in Libya and Cyprus, where I was personally engaged as a NATO official and American diplomat. Libya is the poster child of Obama’s “lead from behind” approach. Though the term is apocryphal, it was a fair moniker for American policy from the outset of the 2011 bombing campaign until today. As political advisor to the NATO commander overseeing the Libya operation, there was no mistaking Washington’s intent to do only as much as necessary to ensure tactical success. Mission creep took hold as the operation went on, facilitated by the lack of real, unified control as various stakeholders maneuvered NATO into advancing their divergent aims. We never stopped to seek a political arrangement such as a ceasefire; as far as I know, the US never seriously even considered one. Yet once Muammar Gadhafi had been overthrown in what had become a regime-change operation, there was no will in Washington—or Europe, for that matter—to lead a follow-on mission, helping to set the stage for a civil war that still simmers and has made Libya a breeding ground for migrant smuggling, Islamist terrorism, and other regional security problems.

Perhaps most important for this discussion, however, is just how little the Libya catastrophe has affected core American interests. Seen locally, from the Libyan or regional perspective, US policy has been a disaster. Seen from Washington, it hardly mattered at all—apart from the partisan political hay made of the death of American ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi in 2012 at the hands of Ansar al-Sharia terrorists. Outside Washington, it left at most a faint mark as yet another US blunder in the Middle East.

If Libya shows the limited effect on the US of its failures in the Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus demonstrates the diminishing rationale for American activism. As political counselor at the US embassy in Nicosia in the 1990s, and even more as US ambassador to Cyprus in 2012–2015, I did all I could to support reconciliation on the island and a negotiated settlement. Under peculiar circumstances—Cypriot President Anastasiades had effectively expelled the UN Cyprus negotiator, former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer—I was called upon to finalize the February 2014 Joint Statement by Anastasiades and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart that launched the last, and possibly final, serious effort toward a federal political solution. Although we had the Joint Statement, the UN-sponsored negotiations that followed broke down in 2017, owing largely to Anastasiades’ recalcitrance.

Joe Biden, as U.S. Vice President, speaks as Cypriot President Anastasiades and Former Turkish Cypriot leader Eroglu look on, in Nicosia, 2014. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer.
Joe Biden, as U.S. Vice President, speaks as Cypriot President Anastasiades and Former Turkish Cypriot leader Eroglu look on, in Nicosia, 2014. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer.

Did it make any difference at all? One can argue that failure to advance a Cyprus solution damages American interests, but after almost 60 years of intercommunal discord on the island and 48 years of relative peace since Turkey’s invasion and de facto partition, the matter is too academic to merit much attention from policymakers. Indeed, as it is the government in Ankara rather than Greek–Turkish tensions that poses a significant threat to NATO, the strategic significance of the Cyprus conflict for Washington has practically vanished. Turkey’s drive toward an independent—even anti-Western—role in the region has rendered the intractable “Cyprus problem” entirely marginal to US interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A Winnowing of American Interests

American policy debates on Eastern Mediterranean issues typically focus on individual problems, such as Syria, maritime boundary disputes, migrant flows, or Hamas. These discussions occur in a sort of vacuum, where US national interest is assumed or only vaguely defined, trade-offs with other priorities and resource limitations are sidelined or ignored, and risks are conservatively assessed. In other words, they replicate the dreadful flaws of most US policy discussions of the past two decades. Unsurprisingly, many protagonists had a hand in our Iraq and Afghanistan policies, having drawn few lessons, it seems, from the disasters of the recent past. In the meantime, the Blob’s preoccupation with great power competition agitates concerns that Russia, China, Iran, or even Turkey will supplant US influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A healthier policy discussion on the Eastern Mediterranean should begin with a dynamic assessment of American national interest. Old shibboleths that held sway during my career have eroded or even crumbled:

  • NATO’s southern flank has shifted northward, is less sensitive to Greek–Turkish tensions, and is not as central to American policy than it was during the Cold War or even the war in Iraq. Turkey no longer acts as an ally in the NATO sense.
  • Sea lanes of communication in the Eastern Mediterranean are less important than they once were, particularly to the US. The American 6th Fleet is stretched thin to cover diverse responsibilities across a vast geographic region as pressure mounts to move naval assets to the Western Pacific.
  • Terrorism was the dominant Eastern Mediterranean issue for most of my career and one that long antedated September 11, 2001. Clear back in 1986, while serving in East Berlin, I helped trace links between the Libyan People’s Bureau and the La Belle disco bombing in West Berlin that killed an American soldier and a local woman. Terrorism remains a threat, but it is no longer centered in the Eastern Mediterranean as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, or even as recently as four or five years ago.

Newer truisms regarding the US and the Eastern Mediterranean also need review considering America’s diminished international standing and competing priorities, both domestic and international:

  • Migrant flows from the region over the past decade have caused human suffering and, as a second-order effect, have fostered right-wing populism in Europe, although their direct impact on US interests has been limited.
  • Great power competition in a more multi-polar system is increasingly important in the Eastern Mediterranean, but it is not in itself an element of national interest. An interest-based approach might well yield different answers than one focused on competition for its own sake.

Two Vital Interests, Two Key Partners

As other US interests have receded, two vital interests in the Eastern Mediterranean remain: the security of Israel and the survival of NATO.

  • Israel’s security is a vital US interest for several reasons, most importantly the strong emotional attachment of Americans to the well-being of Israel. The erosion of this support in America’s intensely polarized political environment is a cause for concern, but it has not changed the fundamental US commitment to Israel’s security in a broad sense.
  • Although the US interest to preserve NATO and, more generally, the post-Cold War order in Europe extends well beyond the Eastern Mediterranean, it is linked to the region in at least two important ways. First is access to the Black Sea, for which NATO has undertaken to reinforce its defense capabilities in the face of Russian threats. Second is America’s recently enhanced and intensified partnership with Greece.

Over the past five years, Greece and Israel have emerged as twin “security pillars” for Washington, reminiscent of the role the Nixon administration foresaw for Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. Turkey has drifted away from America and Europe; the Egyptian regime is problematic, and in any case, Egypt works in close cooperation with both Israel and Greece. While US intelligence and security cooperation with Israel is well known, covering everything from counterterrorism to missile defense, the partnership with Greece has quietly grown in key areas, including the basing of forces, intelligence sharing, and port development. In a classic realist move, the US looks increasingly to Greece and Israel as critical partners in a region where it seeks to limit direct exposure. In other words, Greece and Israel have facilitated the successful US restraint experiment in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Eastern Mediterranean Energy Shows the Way

The evolution of the Eastern Mediterranean’s offshore natural gas has demonstrated the value of American restraint. A decade ago, amid sky-high global gas prices and seemingly limitless demand, dreams took flight of a natural gas-driven transformation of the region’s economy and politics. The US promoted this vision as late as 2014, during then Vice President Biden’s visits to Cyprus and Turkey. Even now it clings to life in untethered rhetoric and drawing-board projects like the East Med gas pipeline.

The Eastern Mediterranean gas reality is quite different than expected. For years now, global market conditions have dampened investors’ interest. Gas did not sweep away the region’s political conflicts; instead, it sharpened them, serving as an accelerant for Turkey, in particular, to press its claims. Although the door has remained closed for the region’s gas to serve as a strategic source of supply for Europe, a window has opened for constructive (as opposed to transformative) regional cooperation. Israel has played a leading role in this arena, selling gas to Jordan and utilizing Egypt’s gasification facilities to monetize its offshore resources. Egypt is working to send gas to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria. The East Mediterranean Gas Forum has developed in parallel with such concrete forms of cooperation. For all its limitations, including an anti-Turkish optic, the Forum is a promising new framework for regional consultation and cooperation, alongside the trilateral summits and high-level coordination structures (Greece–Cyprus–Israel and Greece–Cyprus–Egypt).

How did the Eastern Mediterranean gas “show the way” for US restraint? It did so by deflating Washington’s unrealistic expectations and repositioning gas as a regional issue of moderate interest rather than a strategic issue of intense US interest. This dampened the activist impulse of the foreign policy establishment, allowing regional cooperation to develop in response to market forces and local initiative, relatively free from American meddling.

Naturally, then, natural gas is no longer a major focus of Washington in the Eastern Mediterranean. But America remains interested. Washington has encouraged initiatives like the Israel–Jordan gas agreement and has joined the East Mediterranean Gas Forum as an observer. Such measured engagement aligns with America’s limited interests in the region. On natural gas and a wide range of other issues in the Eastern Mediterranean, American support for regional initiatives is more realistic and helpful than “American leadership.” Such measured engagement, based on realistic assessment of the stakes, can serve the interests of the region and the American people, now and into the future.

John M. Koenig
John M. Koenig has taught at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies since 2017. A diplomat for more than thirty years, Koenig was US Ambassador to Cyprus in 2012–2015 and served in Greece in 1997–2003. He was Deputy US Permanent Representative to NATO in 2003–2006 and Political Advisor to the Commander of NATO Joint Forces Command Naples in 2009–2012.
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