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Power shifts, energy trends challenge U.S. interests

By Paul Michael Wihbey1
Special to the Western Policy Center2

Washington, D.C.
March 1999

Troubling signs in the eastern Mediterranean theater and adjacent regions suggest the possibility of theater-wide disturbances that security planners in the West have yet to recognize. An examination of the geopolitical landscapes that surround this theater reveals a pattern of destabilization that threatens the security of longstanding American allies, including Greece, Turkey, and Israel.

In the Persian Gulf, Iraq has embarked on a strategy of attrition and provocation against U.S. forces and interests, emboldened by its perception of the lack of American resolve. Supported by Russia, France, and China, Iraq is on the verge of shattering the UN-imposed embargo on its oil exports and reconstituting its military with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities.

With a porous border along northern Iraq, where warring Kurdish factions are adjusting to a U.S.-brokered accord, Turkey bolstered its anti-missile defenses with Patriot missiles from Washington. Greece condemned U.S. and British air strikes against Iraqi targets, adopting the European Union policy against attacks with heavy civilian casualties.

In Israel, the contradictions of the Oslo accord and the Wye agreement were evidenced by the collapse of the Netanyahu government and a realignment of the parties and coalitions making up Israels political system. Israel has signaled that it will not tolerate the anticipated unilateral declaration of statehood in May by the Palestinian Authority and will, if necessary, use force to guarantee its security interests in the West Bank and its sovereignty over Jerusalem. Such use of force against Muslims might provoke an anti-Israel backlash in Turkey, which has recently enjoyed military and economic benefits from its relationship with Israel. While Greek and Israeli officials publicly espouse a desire to establish closer ties, bilateral suspicions and Greek perceptions concerning the impact of Turkish-Israeli cooperation have hindered meaningful progress.

The Caspian Sea basin was supposed to provide the worlds next oil bonanza. Despite a promising start almost four years ago, the region has yet to emerge as a dynamic center of oil and gas production with significant dividends for producers and neighboring states. Two major consortiums led by industry giants such as Amoco, British Petroleum, and Pennzoil, which planned to invest billions in offshore drilling and exploration, have been dissolved. The plummeting price of oil, abundant world supplies, and the high cost of transporting equipment overland to the Caspian Sea have rendered the projects inoperative for the time being.

The Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, from Azerbaijan through eastern Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea, may be the first major victim of the new Caspian reality. Once a centerpiece of U.S.-Turkish strategic calculation for the region, this project will have to compete with alternate routes through Iran, Russia, and Georgia, as well as plans to transit Caspian oil to Europe from Black Sea terminals. The shortest and least expensive of these routes, connecting the Bulgarian port of Burgas to Greeces Aegean port of Alexandroupolis, would also have the advantage of easing tanker traffic through the Bosporus.

In the Balkans, Russia is supporting Serbia against a U.S. policy identified with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), whose guerrilla units include members of the anti-American Osama bin Laden terrorist organization. A KLA-inspired independence movement in Kosovo, matched by the Yugoslav desire to retain territorial integrity and the heartland of Serbian heritage, is testing the mettle of U.S. and European diplomats. Reliance on Western military force to punish the Serbs and allow the KLA to proclaim victory through an autonomy-to-independence plan may destroy the Dayton accord for Bosnia and raise tensions between Greece and Turkey, which are NATO allies and Balkan rivals.

Together, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, the Caspian region, and the Balkans form an arc of instability which, along with territorial disputes between Greece and Turkey and their brethren in Cyprus, makes this area the most volatile region in the world. The burden for the U.S. and the West is to devise clear, consistent, and effective policies to help prevent the flare-up of episodes of instability that may trigger deeper tensions or conflict.

To begin with, Western security planners cannot take for granted the unipolar assumption of U.S. global power. Less than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the ability of the U.S. to maintain global stability has been strained by the Asian economic crisis, the belligerence of Saddam Hussein, international terrorism and WMD proliferation, and a resurgent Russian role in world affairs.

U.S. interests will be best served in conjunction with an alliance system based on shared political values, common security goals, and market opportunities. Several states in the arc are longstanding allies of the West and fulfill the criteria needed to create a regional alliance to contain threats to the stability of any of the geopolitical regions surrounding the eastern Mediterranean theater.

The building blocks of a new security architecture have begun to form in the Southeast European Brigade (SEEBRIG), the Black Sea Economic Cooperation initiative, and joint military exercises conducted by Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S. However, shared military, commercial, and diplomatic initiatives will only proceed so far without a commitment from Washington regarding the geostrategic direction of the eastern Mediterranean.

Since sub-Saharan African and South American oil producers have supplanted the Persian Gulf as prime energy suppliers to the U.S., and with Caspian prospects dimming for American investors, the case for a stake in the security and stability of the region is less pronounced. Pure power interests may play a greater role in shaping U.S. involvement, whether at the military level, with proposed air strikes against Serb targets, or at the diplomatic level, with U.S. officials having successfully averted a crisis over the planned deployment of Russian surface-to-air missiles in Cyprus, which was later cancelled.

But American servicemen dying for Kosovo or for oil that the U.S. can import from elsewhere will be less acceptable politically. However, ignoring emerging conflict scenarios that would endanger regional allies would be a gross distortion of American foreign policy.

A new post-Cold War reconfiguration of pro-Western states in the eastern Mediterranean, based on shared security and economic assumptions, could become the fulcrum through which a theater-wide balance of power formula could be applied without necessitating U.S. intervention. A system based on multinational task forces, military exercises involving Greece, Turkey, and pro-Western neighbors, expanded regional trade, and democratic reform, all backed by U.S. diplomatic support, warrants further study as the most effective guarantee for stability in the eastern Mediterranean.

1 Paul Michael Wihbey, a specialist in strategic energy policy, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies in Washington, D.C.

2 The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. The Center analyzes current U.S. foreign policy toward southeastern Europe and develops policy recommendations for the region. It cooperates with other nongovernmental organizations, leading educational and foreign policy institutions, and the media in providing forums for the analysis of issues concerning the region. For more information, please call (202) 530-1425.