Strategic Vacuum

July 24, 2020
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The U.S. has abandoned its position as the major external power in the Mediterranean. As a result, challenges to the region's security, such as the possibility of unrestricted migration across the inland sea, Russia's growing naval ability to project power into the central and western Mediterranean, and friendly states' search for security from others are ignored. One important example with large energy, security, and diplomatic consequences is the jockeying for position among NATO states, U.S. partners, and Russia for power in Libya's civil war.

Largely unnoticed by the U.S. press on 2 July, France suspended its participation in NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian, the Atlantic Alliance’s maritime counterterrorism mission in the Mediterranean.  Sea Guardian has been instrumental in preserving European stability and safety throughout the Libyan civil war, interdicting weapons that violate the UN’s arms embargo on the war-torn North African state and disrupting terrorist movement throughout the region.  France’s withdrawal from Sea Guardian was precipitated by an incident in early June, during which a Turkish warship escorting a Tanzanian-flagged maritime transport “painted” the French frigate Courbet with its combat radar, thereby preventing the Courbet from inspecting the cargo ship for illegal weapons.

This incident exemplifies the complications and paradoxes of great-power foreign policy.  The Syrian Civil War has been resolved in Assad's favor, through the liberal application of Russian airpower and Iranian ground forces.  The zone of Near Eastern confrontation has shifted to Libya, which along with Tunisia, flanks the critical maritime corridor between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean.  The Libya conflict pits Turkey and Qatar, both of which support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, against Russia, France, and the Saudi-led Gulf coalition, all of which back the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.  Out of the conflict's major external actors, only Russia lacks a security relationship with the United States.  Turkey and France are both NATO allies.  Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are all critical Near Eastern allies.  Despite its cooperation with Iran and enmity towards Saudi Arabia, Qatar remains an important partner, hosting the Near East's largest U.S. base.

Partisanship’s debilitating casualty is strategic rationality.  Contentious domestic issues involve clashing conceptions of social good.  They require careful political navigation.  Nevertheless, passionate dissent, diversity of opinion, and intense public debate can be beneficial to the body politic.  By contrast, in foreign affairs, division and ideological commitment ought to give way to experience, wisdom, and prudence.  In the American system, the Executive is empowered to act with dispatch and secrecy, advised in its role by the legislature’s upper house.  This, in turn, the Founders intended, was to be the domain of elder statesmen, leading citizens seasoned by decades of experience, tempered by a spirit of compromise more often found in the old than the young, and themselves familiar with the practices and responsibilities of sovereignty from their previous political experience in the states or their management of major commercial enterprises.  Working in tandem, the Senate and Executive together would craft and execute a nuanced foreign policy, embodying the benefits of executive centrality and legislative deliberation, absent partisan affiliation.

Unraveling the complex web of interests that defines the Libya crisis requires this sort of political deftness and strategic acumen.  Unfortunately, the American political system has lacked statesmen with these capacities for the past decade.  Partisan populism has replaced deliberation and decisiveness.  Under a decade ago, Barack Obama derisively characterized then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Russia policy as a Cold War relic.  After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria, foreign policy hesitation became a common Republican talking point.  This was not without reason.  Putin capitalized on several opportunities, each time exploiting U.S. indecision and unwillingness to use force in support of secondary interests to consolidate Russia’s strategic position in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean,  as America withdrew its power from the Middle East, most visibly by its virtual abandonment of a permanent and respected naval presence in the Mediterranean.  In the meantime, Democrats defended Obama’s attempted regional retrenchments, maintaining that Russia posed only a minimal and short-term threat.

Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 triggered a partisan realignment on European policy that demonstrates the current lack of strategic vision in the American political system.  The American left embraced the 'Russian collusion' narrative to avoid assessing its own political failures and has rhetorically lambasted Trump's foreign policy, particularly his criticism of NATO and willingness to meet with and defend Putin and other authoritarians.  But there exists no support for increased defense budgets or a muscular international posture amongst Democrats.  Rather, voters are meant to be comforted that increased electoral cybersecurity will deter Russian expansion and secure American interests.  By contrast, Republicans generally avoid, obfuscate, and redirect when pressed on Trump’s European policy.  The lack of intellectual substance from both left and right demonstrates the degree to which partisan political considerations, rather than strategic understanding, drives major party foreign policy positions.

But strategy is critical to unraveling the current dilemma America faces in Europe.  This is a result of the emerging strategic situation that will define international politics until a great-power confrontation or political collapse occurs: China’s rise.  The Communist Party’s leadership has determined that China can no longer achieve its strategic objectives by hiding its capabilities and biding its time.  It has deemed American power as the greatest threat to the current Chinese regime’s survival.  It has therefore embarked on a global campaign to undermine American influence, created a military explicitly designed to defeat the U.S. and its allies in a Pacific war, and partnered with other anti-American revisionists – specifically Russia and Iran – to achieve its goals. 

Any Sino-American conflict will be Asian.  But this fact does not eliminate the importance of other theaters, a fact Winston Churchill grasped better than any other statesman during the Allied struggle with Nazism and Japanese Imperialism.  The U.S. retains a core interest in the Near East.  It requires access to its maritime littorals, through which critical sea lines of communication (SLOCs) between Europe and Asia run.  Although America is now functionally energy-independent, its allies, both Asian and European, require the Greater Middle East’s energy resources.

Similarly, while Europe may no longer be the focal point of global competition, America retains a clear interest in European security and stability.  When taken as a whole, Europe is America’s largest export market.  Western Europe’s high-tech economies are a critical element of the global financial system from which the U.S. derives so great a portion of its wealth.  Europe's littorals, particularly the Mediterranean, contain critical maritime highways and SLOCs of their own.  Moreover, the U.S.' alliance in Europe – and the Near East – give it unprecedented access to Eurasia, allowing it to shape events thousands of miles from its borders, while also affording it the support of the world's most advanced militaries.  Conversely, a Europe that gravitated towards, or was controlled by, a state or coalition hostile to American interests could deny the U.S. access to all these benefits and leverage them against America.

This is not to say, however, that Europe’s security arrangements need no revision.  To retain its position as a great power, the U.S. has no choice but to execute a strategic rebalance towards Asia, optimizing its land, air, and naval forces against a Chinese adversary that hopes to neutralize American and allied assets with missile barrages in a conflict's opening hours.  This will necessarily require a redirection of American forces towards Asia.  But the U.S. must still secure its European interests, both preventing Russia from dominating the continent and forestalling a Sino-European partnership, the two likely results of a U.S. departure from Europe and the dissolution of NATO.

Given these objectives, the Libyan dilemma offers the U.S. significant opportunities to maneuver among regional interests.  Turkey, it appears, is now willing to antagonize both Russia and other NATO members in its quest for neo-imperial consolidation.  Ultimately, Turkey hopes to position itself between Russia, and whatever power is central to European security arrangements, using its hoped-for monopoly over the Central and Eastern Mediterranean to enrich itself at its rivals' expense.

Turkish willingness to confront NATO ally France and U.S. adversary Russia demonstrates how complex the strategic situation has become.  French intervention in Libya demonstrates that the Elysée deems Turkey a more immediate threat than Russia.   In France’s view, Turkish victory would give Ankara a functional veto over European policy.  Erdogan would control refugee flows from both North Africa and the Levant and maritime traffic between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. 

By contrast, it appears that France views Russia’s objectives as more limited.  Russian “hybrid” doctrine bedazzled the West in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine.  But particularly in the latter case, Russia failed to accomplish a core objective.  Moscow could not draw Kiev back into its orbit, extract significant territorial gains, nor obtain economic concessions from the West.  While the annexation of Crimea has given Russia a commanding Black Sea position, it still lacks an overland connection with the peninsula.  Russia could not open a corridor through Mariupol without a prohibitive military commitment.  As sanctions pressure continues to squeeze the Russian economy, it is reasonable that Russia hopes to use its Libyan position as a bargaining chip.

French interests are equally complex.  France has been involved in Libya since 2015, covertly supporting Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army in an attempt to ensure that Libya’s oil exports to Europe remained regular and prevent Libya from becoming a failed state terrorist safe haven.  It appears that, at least in the short-term, France has judged Russia to be a more reasonable partner than Turkey, likely because Russia has commitments to other hot spots – Syria, Ukraine, even the Baltics – that could flare up at any point, thereby restricting Russian objectives and commitments.  Moreover, France views America as uninterested in restraining Turkish actions through NATO-backed diplomacy, thus necessitating an independent policy.

A coherent American strategy would identify each of these factors – Turkish interests, Russian objectives, French calculations – and integrate them with an understanding of Egyptian, and likely by extension Saudi, policy goals.  In the short-term, it could leverage America's position as a relatively neutral third-party to mediate between Russia, France, Turkey, and other relevant actors.  Alternatively, it could use Libya as a breakpoint with Turkey, explicitly back France, and displace Russia as Haftar's benefactor.  Or it could co-opt Libya’s intervention while simultaneously satisfying French and Egyptian energy concerns, leaving Russia isolated in its support of Haftar.

More broadly, a coherent strategic policy that strove to balance U.S. force redeployments to Asia with recognition of America's European security concerns would identify France as the most reliable potential European partner.  For all its obfuscation and emphasis on cyber capabilities and political pressure, Russia's hybrid method ultimately relies on the extreme application of force.  In Georgia, Russia leveraged its aerial and naval capabilities to blockade the Georgian coastline, occupy Georgia's major port, and extend the conflict beyond the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while using overwhelming numerical superiority to displace Georgian ground forces.

In Ukraine, Russia’s invasion of Crimea was decisive because of, once again, overwhelming Russian superiority in that specific theater.  In Donbass, Russia encountered a very different situation, in which increasingly organized, disciplined, and coordinated Ukrainian forces undid separatist gains.  Russia only reconsolidated its position through direct, albeit denied, intervention.  Russian victory in Syria, and until recently, Haftar’s Russian-sponsored gains in Libya, followed this same pattern.  Russia’s vaunted hybrid operational art is no more than the sustained application of force against inferior adversaries, with the goal of either exhausting or overwhelming its enemies.

France has demonstrated the political resolve to execute extended military interventions.  It has maintained a permanent 5,000-strong troop presence in the Sahel under Operation Barkhane, coordinating with five African nations and conducting a counterinsurgency campaign over a nearly two million square mile arc of territory.  Barkhane is the greatest independent European force deployment since the UK’s 2000-2001 intervention in Sierra Leone.  Even then, combat action under Operation Palliser lasted for under two months and involved only 1,200 soldiers.  Similarly, France’s independent military capabilities allowed it to conduct airstrikes of its own accord in Iraq and Syria: France operates the only viable Carrier Strike Group in the Western world outside of the U.S., and the only non-American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.  On land, France operates a more robust set of rapid-deployment forces than any other European power, alongside a dedicated air attack wing.

A United States acting strategically would identify France’s capabilities and resolve, and after diffusing or manipulating the Libya crisis, leverage these aspects and reorient European security structures towards France.  Perhaps, with enough diplomatic subtlety, a Franco-American partnership could begin courting Russia, drawing it, along with Europe, India, and Japan, into a coordinated anti-Chinese entente.  By surrounding China from sea and land, the U.S. can pressure Beijing as it pressured Moscow in the 1980s, and demonstrate to the CCP that, like the Soviet Union, its prodigious military investments will not ensure the swift victory it requires.

But not while national strategy is subordinated to partisanship. 


Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.



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