This summer promises events that will thoroughly eclipse the diplomatic flurry over the recent Gaza flotilla. What few would have expected is the maritime character of the drama to which we have to look forward. And in a manner reminiscent of some seemingly minor operational decisions during the Cold War, Obama’s response to the challenge will be the most important security signal sent by his administration to date.
The distant drumbeat of the impending climax has been sounding for some time; Iran and Hezbollah have repeatedly threatened shipping in, respectively, the Strait of Hormuz and the waters off Lebanon and Israel, near the northern approach to the Suez Canal. Hezbollah’s most recent threat was issued in May, shortly before the deadly flotilla incident. Both Iran and Hezbollah are actively preparing to make good on their threats. This is not a theoretical menace. A complacent dismissal of their activities would be very dangerous.
Moreover, they are about to get help from — and take direct advantage of — the chaotic maritime situation brewing with the follow-on flotillas now in planning. Avram Rimon at Examiner.com had a good summary of them this weekend: they include a Gaza flotilla sponsored by German Jews; a counter-flotilla of Israelis hoping to bring aid to Cyprus, the Turkish Kurds, and Armenia (the latter under a Turkish blockade for more than 16 years); the Turkish flotilla for which Tayyip Erdogan has promised his own presence and a naval escort; and the flotilla being mounted by Iran, which is scheduled to leave Iran for Gaza on June 18.
The U.S. can do one of two things about these proliferating flotillas. We can organize NATO overtly to monitor and control eruptions in the Eastern Mediterranean, or we can simply leave it all for Israel to handle. Doing the latter will guarantee the early involvement of Hezbollah and Hamas in enlarging the scope of this maritime challenge. A hands-off approach by the Western nations makes it more likely that the terrorists, along with Iran and Turkey, will seek to precipitate crises — which may involve innocent commercial shipping — and press situational advantages. On the other hand, a declaration that the U.S. and NATO will prevent destabilizing eruptions, accompanied by obvious readiness to impose order if necessary, would be a salutary and effective signal. None of this need be done in a bellicose manner: quiet but unyielding is the appropriate demeanor.
Turkey’s involvement in the recent flotilla should already have resulted in a moment of reckoning with its NATO allies, if only behind closed doors. The West’s lackadaisical approach to its core alliance is on borrowed time. If the impending parade of flotillas produces only disorganized posturing from NATO, while allowing Israel’s enemies to create havoc at sea and score propaganda points against Israel, the next challenge is likely to emerge almost automatically in the Persian Gulf. Iran has threatened to begin stopping ships in the Strait of Hormuz if the inspection clause of the June 9 UN sanctions is actually applied against Iran-bound cargo. Tehran’s willingness to carry through on this will depend on the U.S. posture, which governs what the Iranians think they can get away with.
A strong stance in the Eastern Mediterranean is the lowest-cost, highest-payoff method of deterring Iran from the outset. Maintaining stability at sea and control of the world’s key chokepoints is an American naval task so basic we rarely think about it, but the impact from breaches of that order is immediate and far-reaching. Doing nothing is courting crisis; we should be working to head this one off at the pass. That approach would be far less costly than reacting to a series of crises.