Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, is expected to cruise through his confirmation hearings early this year. Unlike the controversial and inarticulate Chuck Hagel, apparently chosen because Obama felt camaraderie with him on a congressional trip and wanted to poke his opponents, Carter has broad bipartisan respect and clear mastery of the issues at hand. This is important not only because of the Pentagon’s budget crunch—cutbacks exacerbated by the inflexible mechanism of sequestration—but also because of the rise of new challenges the world over.
But being Secretary of Defense is not simply about reacting to the latest crises. It’s also about planning for future ones. In theory, that might be the purview of the National Security Council and State Department Policy Planning Staff, but neither have distinguished themselves under Obama; quite the contrary, they have become dumping grounds for political loyalists and followers rather than thinkers.
Carter’s greatest legacy may not yet be on the radar screen of senators and their staff who are already pouring over his record to prepare their questions. But, the rise of Greek leftist Alexis Tsipras should highlight both the growing importance of the Eastern Mediterranean and America’s relative vulnerability.
The discovery and development of gas fields off the coast of Cyprus and Israel have infused the Eastern Mediterranean with new importance. Its gas may account for only slightly more than half that of Alaska’s northern coast and less than half of that of Saudi Arabia, but Eastern Mediterranean gas is closer to its customers and in a less extreme environment.
The gas fields might be good for both Israel and Cyprus’s economy, but can also be a source for instability. After Houston-based Noble Energy began drilling in Cypriot waters in September 2011, Egemen Bağış, at the time Turkey’s European Union Affairs minister and, despite corruption allegations, still a top advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened, “This is what we have the navy for. We have trained our marines for this; we have equipped the navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can be done.”
Meanwhile, in May 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the permanent deployment of a 16-ship Mediterranean task force. With President Obama apparently willing to acquiesce to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, Russian use of Syria’s Tartous Naval Base is assured. Add into the mix Hezbollah, which brags that it is training in underwater sabotage, the Lebanese government which is voicing a new maritime dispute with Israel over 330 square miles of offshore waters, Hamas, a resurgent Iranian navy, and al-Qaeda’s rise in the Sinai peninsula, and the Eastern Mediterranean has not been so contested since the height of the Cold War.
The United States has one naval base in the region, in Souda Bay, Crete. But with Tsipras’s rise, that’s up for grabs. If Tsipras doesn’t expel the United States completely, he may go the Philippines’ route and raise the rent exorbitantly to the point where it becomes untenable to continue.
The United States maintains numerous installations around the Persian Gulf: In Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Over the next decade, however, the Eastern Mediterranean will only grow in importance, as fracking will continue to break the relative importance of Persian Gulf energy exporters. How the United States should position its forces in the Mediterranean may not seem like a pressing problem, but decisions made during Carter’s watch will reverberate for decades. He should be up to the challenge. Let us hope that the Senate explores the issue.