Greek Business File, January-February-March 2019, No. 119
POLITICS by Professor G. Prevelakis
President Trump’s decision to more or less abandon the Kurds, the US’ main ally in the struggle against ISIS, by withdrawing US forces from Syria, has created a feeling of anxiety in countries like Israel and Greece, accustomed to rely on the American guarantees for their security
Traditional European powers like France or England were known for their opportunistic attitude towards their minor allies. France abandoned Greece during the Greek-Turkish war that led to the Minor Asia Greek defeat. After the Second World War, Great Britain refused to respect its promises about Cyprus to the only country still fighting against the Axis in 1940-41. On the contrary, the United States tried to develop an image of strategic and geopolitical reliability. How else could they maintain the unity of the anti-communist bloc during the Cold War? The lessons of the First and Second World Wars seemed to have been learned.
Too many questions
Is this US tradition changing? Are they also becoming unreliable towards their allies, now that the Soviet threat seems dead and buried? If this change is not a passing Trump syndrome but a permanent transformation, many countries around the world have indeed reasons to fear.
For Greece and, even more, for Israel, a second question creates additional worry. It concerns the American attitude towards the Eastern Mediterranean. What if the Trump decision is a sign of loss of interest for the geopolitical challenges of the region?
Behind the American President’s exaggerated gesticulations, hides undoubtedly the more general isolationist trend. As it often happened in their history, the American people are going again through their traditional xenophobic fit, which usually lasts until the next wake-up call of History, as it happened with Pearl Harbour and, more recently, with September 11.
Permanent factors hidden
However, not all regions of the world are concerned in the same way by this fluctuation. Behind the ups and downs of the American geopolitical psyche, more permanent factors may hide. Until the Second World War, the Mediterranean was of little interest to the United States. As Jean Gottmann explained in 1945 “in a culture in which the classic humanities did not have but a minor role, the continuity linking the modern western civilisations with the ancient eastern civilisations was little felt”*. However, the situation changed radically from 1942 onwards with the American military involvement in northern Africa and then in Italy. After the end of the war, the Soviet threat against Greece and Turkey strongly reinforced the American interest in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In comparison to the explosion of American economic, military, technological and political presence in this important crossroads, the pre-war American influence appeared marginal. It was limited to philanthropy, religion and education. Usually of protestant inspiration, it produced the American University in Beirut, Robert College in Istanbul, the Athens College in Greece and other institutions. During the Cold War, however, access to the Middle East energy resources and blocking the Soviet exit to the warm seas became much more important than the aforementioned expressions of American idealism.
During the last seven decades, the United States have thus participated actively in the political and geopolitical turmoil of the Eastern Mediterranean. They created a strong basis in the service of their aims, composed of Greece, Turkey and Israel. They managed, not without difficulty, to maintain the cohesion of this geopolitical triangle, in spite of its internal contradictions, largely conditioned by the British colonial heritage. This triangle extended to the Middle East, with important allies like the Shah of Iran. This security network focused on containing the Soviet Union to the south-east. The old British-Russian antagonism had taken a renewed form.
However, the main threat for both the Soviet Union and the United States of America did not come from one another, but from inside forces. The failure to control the Afghan guerrilla, certainly endowed with American military technology, not only compromised the Soviet grasp on the region, but even contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States faced similar problems. In 1979, the alliance lost Iran, a major stronghold, because of the regime’s internal problems and not as a result of communist infiltration.
US in the Middle East
With the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States were left alone to cope with the Middle East. With the usual American optimism, they tried to reorganise it, to reform countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq according to the American political model. Instead of introducing the rule of law and democracy, they found themselves in front of serious difficulties on the ground and were even exposed to threats inside their very territory, in the form of terrorism. In 2014, the explosive growth of ISIS, a violent fundamentalist movement claiming a large territory linking the Middle East with the Eastern Mediterranean, was largely seen as the result of mismanagement of the consequences of the Second Gulf War. It demonstrated the lack of understanding of the ways of the East by the United States military and political leadership.
The collapse of the American Middle East dream was aggravated by a new frustration: Turkey. During the 2010s, in place of a stable, reliable, monolithic Kemalist Turkey, the United States started to cope with a regime that often denied its support to the allied war effort and reversed its relationship with Israel. Turkey even began to cooperate with the main competitors of the United States, Russia and Iran. In front of those deceptions, it is not surprising that the post Cold War enthusiasm turned into a feeling of bitterness. The region most of which used to be part of the Ottoman Empire, comprising the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Northern Africa, finally revealed itself in all of its complexity.
As we saw, the United States cared little to learn about this part of the world before the Second World War. The surge in interest that led to the growth of studies in the Eastern Mediterranean during the 1940s and 1950s did not last long. Soon after, “areal studies”, focusing on history, language, religion and geography, were banned from the American academia in favour of comparative quantitative studies with an emphasis on economics. When Middle Eastern terrorism became a serious threat, there were very few experts of this part of the world in the whole United States. Many of the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean American blunders can be explained, at least partly, by this intellectual negligence, which, in spite of some progress, has not yet been overcome. Today that the challenges of the Pacific become more and more crucial in the eyes of the American public, and as the energy questions are less and less preoccupying because of the development of new domestic sources (shale gas), why continue to consecrate intellectual and material efforts in a field that has proven so frustrating and unproductive?
“The combination of maximum actual effect with minimum consciousness and interest has made the Western factor in the Near and Middle East on the whole an anarchic and destructive force, and at the same time it appears to be the only positive force in the field”** . In a certain way, Arnold Toynbee’s 1922 remark is still valid. The destructiveness of the US implication is becoming obvious, to the Americans themselves first of all. However, what will happen if the American influence disappears?
Will another power, or powers, try to fill the vacuum? Russia, Iran, China tomorrow? Even those unpleasant scenarios are less worrisome than the major trend, the growth of which we constantly observe during the past decades. The efforts to “Europeanise” or to “Modernise” the eastern societies started more than two centuries ago. Today they appear to have failed. The western ideologies, nationalism, socialism and communism, have lost their appeal, the modernising elites have proven incompetent, authoritarian, and corrupt, and the dream to attain the western standards of “good life” has proven futile. From East to West, from South to North, the collapse of the imported institutions is rapidly advancing: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Arab spring, Syria, Turkey. The old traditional structures attain a new life: religion, family, clan. However, the return to the past is not possible. The new reality is an incoherent mosaic of old and new. The terrorists’ profiles are the perfect illustration of this mix. They combine the most advanced communication technology with 19th century western radicalism and Middle Age religious fanaticism. The explosive growth of ISIS and the situation in countries like Syria or Libya offer a glimpse of the emerging pre/post modern dystopia. If this “counter-modernisation” process is left unhindered and if, in addition, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean become the ground of competition between the mounting Eurasiatic powers, a new global powder keg risks to emerge.
Europe has to wake up
The United States’ temptation to free themselves from the oriental complications can therefore have much more serious consequences than the fate of the once-again-betrayed Kurds. If the United States do not rapidly realise the damage that their withdrawal can produce, the most exposed region, Europe, has to wake up to the dangers and develop an efficient Mediterranean policy. Unfortunately, Europe is not only in a period of introversion but it is also developing a more and more continental mind-set. Brexit is both the result and the accelerator of this dangerous European trend. Under such conditions, it is hardly probable that Europe will properly perceive, and much less respond to, the East Mediterranean challenges.
The Trump decision to withdraw from Syria is therefore the tip of the iceberg in respect to regional geopolitics. The betrayal of the Kurds seems as the sign of a change of era. After more than seven decades, the Americans return to their old Mediterranean indifference. The retreat of what existed of the “classical humanities” even at Gottmann’s time will hardly help to contain this regressive move.
*Jean Gottmann, “Les Etats-Unis et le monde méditérranéen”, Politique Etrangère, August 1945.
**Arnold Toynbee, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, Boston and New York, 1922, p. 5