Unsurprisingly, the terrorist attack in Orlando has pushed other news off the front page, but this seems to me important context for evaluating what the presidential candidates are saying.
Late yesterday afternoon, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower — an aircraft carrier known as the Ike — entered the Mediterranean. It will relieve the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group, which will be going back to the US this month after an eight-month deployment. According to The Wall Street Journal,
The massive ship serves as a launching point for a near-constant barrage of airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. Since November, it has accounted for a little more than half of the total sorties flown over those two countries by the U.S. military.
Last week, the Truman took an unannounced detour from the Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean. An unnamed “military official in Washington” said the Truman’s detour “was a signal to Moscow.”
Murat Yetkin of Hürriyet Daily News, who is usually pretty reliable about these things, reports that on June 3, the Truman began hitting ISIS positions around Aleppo in Syria with jets and guided missiles from the sea. (Usually, American planes launch from İncirlik to hit ISIS.) The next day, he reports, a Tu-142 naval reconnaissance plane was for the first time seen in the Syrian and Mediterranean skies.
Meanwhile, on June 6, the USS Porter passed through the Turkish straits northbound into the Black Sea. The Russian Foreign Ministry has warned that Russia will “respond” to the arrival of the USS Porter “with measures.” What this means is unclear.
The statement is the latest indication of the rising tension between Russia and NATO … And it is not particular to the Black Sea … The tension in the Black Sea is actually part of bigger problems in the Mediterranean Sea because of the Syrian civil war.
Both the US and Russia are — nominally — fighting ISIS in Syria. But Russia supports the Assad regime, whereas the US supports anti-Assad forces. These ground forces are now getting closer to each other near Aleppo and Raqqa. Raqqa, of course, is ISIS’s base.
On June 9, the Russian and Syrian defense ministers met with their Iranian counterpart for a “strategic meeting” in Tehran, after which they reiterated their united support for Assad against the United States, according to the Iranian state mouthpiece, PressTV. They “took priority measures in reinforcing the cooperation” among the defense ministries of the three countries.
Meanwhile, NATO has been conducting massive military exercises in Poland since June 6. Russia has in response deployed additional troops along the Polish border.
Last week, Alarik Fritz, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, and Vice Admiral James Foggo, Commander of the US 6th Fleet, published an unusually strong warning about Russia in the naval journal Proceedings:
In the early 1990s, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and commentary such as Francis Fukuyama’s landmark essay “The End of History?” led us to believe that our strategic rivalry with Russia and our need to stay one step ahead of Russian capabilities had faded. It has not. Once again, an effective, skilled, and technologically advanced Russian submarine force is challenging us. Russian submarines are prowling the Atlantic, testing our defenses, confronting our command of the seas, and preparing the complex underwater battlespace to give them an edge in any future conflict. Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, Royal Navy, the head of NATO’s maritime forces, noted recently that his forces report “more activity from Russian submarines than we’ve seen since the days of the Cold War.” Some analysts believe that even our underwater infrastructure—such as oil rigs and telecommunications cables—may be under threat by these new and advanced forces. Russian focus, investment, and activity in the undersea domain are now so unmistakable that even the head of the Russian Navy, Viktor Chirkov, has admitted that Russian submarine patrols have grown 50 percent since 2013. …
Not only have Russia’s actions and capabilities increased in alarming and confrontational ways, its national-security policy is aimed at challenging the United States and its NATO allies and partners. For example, the new Russian national security-strategy depicts the United States and NATO as threats to Russian security and accuses us of applying “political, economic, military, and information-related pressure” on Russia. Thus, not only is Russia pursuing advanced military capabilities (especially in the underwater domain) that enable it to be a credible threat to us, it is now boldly saying that it intends to act as one. …
Russia now employs an “arc of steel” from the Arctic through the Baltic and down to the Black Sea. Combined with extensive and frequent submarine patrols throughout the North Atlantic and Norwegian Sea, and forward-deployed forces in Syria, Russia has the capability to hold nearly all NATO maritime forces at risk. No longer is the maritime space uncontested. For the first time in almost 30 years, Russia is a significant and aggressive maritime power.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have put their armies on a war footing:
Leaders in the Baltic countries and Poland fear the force NATO plans to deploy on their territory is too small and symbolic to deter an attack by Russia, whose 2014 annexation of Crimea is fresh in the memories of the former Soviet-bloc states.
They will this week press other ministers of the western military alliance to help them build an air defense system against Russian aircraft and missiles. But that would be a highly sensitive step, likely to be condemned by Moscow as yet more evidence of a NATO strategy threatening its borders.
But NATO is not united in its sense of priorities:
… southern NATO nations, focused on uncontrolled migrant flows and the failing states on Europe’s borders, may also be unwilling to grant more resources to the eastern flank.
Ben Hodges, the commander of the U.S. army in Europe, visited Vilnius last week. He echoed Baltic concerns about the strength of NATO’s deterrence.
“It is a transition,” Hodges said. “I hope that includes serious war fighting capabilities. Just putting garrisons of troops sitting in the countries … will not deter.”
As understandable as it is that everyone’s focus is on the horror in Orlando, these are ominous developments on a much larger scale.
Donald Trump has in some ways turned this election into a referendum on NATO. The question Americans have been asked is whether they think Russia and Iran, together, pose a threat to America such that collective deterrence and the Atlantic alliance should be nurtured in an alliance led by the United States — or whether the US should “get along” with Russia, shut its borders, and turn inward.
These questions are not new. I found this 1949 essay by Arthur Schlesinger about Senator Robert A. Taft’s “new isolationism” fascinatingly topical. Read the whole essay and tell me if it doesn’t sound so up-to-date that it’s almost spooky:
Americans have always had a natural and splendid exultation in the uniqueness of a new continent and a new society. The New World had been called into existence to redress the moral as well as the diplomatic balance of the Old; we could not defile the sacredness of our national mission by too careless intercourse with the world whose failure made our own necessary. Two great oceans fostered the sense of distance, emphasized the tremendous act of faith involved in emigration, and, at the same time, spared the new land the necessity for foreign involvements.
The resulting isolationism — this passionate sense of a unique national destiny — was, in the beginning, a generous and affirmative faith. We were, as Lincoln said, dedicated to a proposition; we were engaged in a fateful experiment. America was conceived to be perfect, not in achievement, but in opportunity. Our responsibility was not to be complacent about what we had done, but to rise to the challenge of what there was for us to do. Our nation had been commissioned –whether by God or by history — to work out on this remote hemisphere the best hopes and dreams of men. Isolation was a means, not of confining, but of releasing democratic energy. This was the isolationism of the younger George Norris, of the early Hiram Johnson, of the Robert La Follettes.
But American isolationism did not consist only in an affirmation of the uniqueness of America; it also included — and increasingly so — a rejection of Europe. In a sense, of course, the very act of migration had represented an extraordinary act of rejection. “Repudiation of Europe,” Dos Passos once said, “is, after all, America’s main excuse for being.” Nor could such repudiation be without passion. America’s love-hate relationship with Europe has dominated our politics as well as our literature. As European struggles began to force themselves on the American attention, isolationism began to react with ever more explicit hostility and even hatred. An image of Europe began to haunt the isolationist consciousness–an image of a dark and corrupt continent, teeming with insoluble feuds, interminable antagonisms; senseless and malevolent wars. Europe was morally and politically diseased and scabrous; and contact with it would bring the risk of fatal infection. …
“The consolation is that this is probably a last convulsive outbreak of an old nostalgia,” Schlesinger concludes. “Once we have exorcised this latest version of isolationism, we may at last begin to live in the twentieth century.”
He was wrong. It wasn’t the last convulsive outbreak. We’re having one now, and we need to make this decision again, about the 21st century.