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Pivot and Vacuum

Douglas J. Feith

Following are remarks delivered by Douglas J. Feith at the University of Haifa-Hudson Institute Workshop on Future of Maritime Security Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Thanks to Shaul Chorev and his Maritime Strategy Center and to the University of Haifa for hosting this workshop.

For this audience, I don’t need to elaborate on the strategic importance of the Eastern Mediterranean.

My remarks will focus on militarily relevant matters. I will discuss three things.

First, the U.S. policy called “pivot to Asia.” It was announced by President Obama but remains relevant in the Trump era.

Second, the interest in the Eastern Med region of outside powers, specifically Iran, Russia, China and the United States.

Third is a strategic intellectual challenge: how should the United States and its partners deal with military threats from China. The experience of the Cold War with the Soviet Union is of only limited applicability.

Pivot to Asia

In reaction to George W. Bush’s Iraq War, President Obama was determined to disentangle the U.S. military from the Middle East. This policy was motivated not only by negative views of President Bush’s interventionism and a desire to flee the hostility and violence endemic in the region, but also by the affirmative view that U.S. policy makers should pay greater attention to the economically booming Asia-Pacific region. Hence, the policy of “pivot to Asia.”

It’s easy to understand why Americans want to turn their backs on the Middle East. The Iraq war went badly and was seen at home as too long, too costly and for uncertain benefits. Iraq and the Arab Middle East in general are full of murderous religious fanatics, tyrannical political leaders and publics that distrust the United States and show little if any gratitude for U.S. efforts to aid them in any way.

The reality, however, is that Americans cannot actually isolate themselves from the region. The pathologies of the Middle East will harm the United States whether or not it “pivots” – whether or not Americans pay attention to the region or become involved. The harm will take the form of terrorist attacks, masses of refugees and cyber attacks. It will affect vital U.S. interests regarding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and regarding the free flow of oil to world markets.

Consistent with the “pivot” policy, the United States played no substantial role in the Syrian civil war. I’ll leave aside the question whether that policy was on balance wise. In any case, it clearly contributed to a power vacuum in Syria that both Russia and Iran helped fill.

President Trump has more or less retained Obama’s pivot policy. He gave U.S. forces greater freedom of action against ISIS, which contributed to the destruction of its caliphate. But President Trump seems to share his predecessor’s view on keeping U.S. involvement in the Middle East to a minimum. His idea of U.S. interests in Syria seems to be limited to fighting ISIS. He talks tough against Iran, but doesn’t seem to think of Syria as an element of Iran’s strategy. He shows no interest in countering Russian influence in Syria.

President Trump has increased the U.S. defense budget but not by enough to support a major increase in the assets of the navy or of the other services. The Sixth Fleet, based in the Mediterranean, is a shadow of what it was during the Cold War. What the United States is spending on its navy is far less than what is needed to preserve the predominance it once had throughout the Mediterranean.

Outside powers will compete with littoral states to dominate the Eastern Med whether or not the U.S. is engaged. Indeed, America’s “pivot” creates incentives for other powers to enter the region in force.


Iran is militarily active throughout the Middle East – especially in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

It also promotes political subversion among Shiite minorities in the Arabian Peninsula’s Sunni-ruled states.

It is supporting the Shiite Houthis rebels in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is giving military support to the Yemeni government. An important aspect of the Yemeni civil war is control of sea ports.

Iran invested heavily, financially and militarily, in Bashar al-Assad’s regime and that regime’s survival in the Syrian civil war is an Iranian strategic victory.

Iran shares the credit for that victory with Russia.

I think it’s underappreciated in Washington that Syria is the key to Iran’s strategy to create overland access for Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean.

Iran’s strategy is to rely heavily on proxy forces.

Iran has sometimes used Hamas as a proxy against Israel. Despite its political failures and poor economic performance in Gaza, Hamas continues to threaten Israel with rockets, incendiary kites and tunnels for terrorist infiltration.

The Israeli government is exploring whether it can neutralize Iranian influence in Gaza and generally add to its leverage over Hamas by allowing Gaza to receive goods through a port in Cyprus.

Iran’s chief proxy, however, is Hezbollah, which Iran created in the 1980s.

Hezbollah threatens from Lebanese with an estimated 150,000 surface to surface rockets. It also casts a cloud over shipping in the Mediterranean.

In 2006 it damaged an Israeli navy ship with a Chinese-made missile.

And Hezbollah has been reported to have Russian-made anti-ship missiles that can hit Israeli ships and Israel’s offshore natural gas facilities in the Mediterranean.

Iran’s navy harassed the U.S. navy in the Persian Gulf in 2016 and 2017 and just last month Iranian President Rouhani threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to U.S. economic sanctions.

Last, and perhaps of greatest significance is the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Western attempts to halt and dismantle the program through diplomacy were unsuccessful. The United States retreated from key demands until it eventually produced the so-called Iran nuclear deal.

The deal ended UN economic sanctions against Iran. It gave Iran access to approximately $150 billion in assets frozen in various countries. But it did not require Iran to dismantle its nuclear program. And it did not constrain Iran’s missile program or support for terrorism or calls for the destruction of America and Israel.

The strategic importance of Iran’s nuclear program is not just how possession of nuclear weapons might affect Iran’s actions, although that’s a serious problem. Iran’s success in defying the world is damaging the world’s non-proliferation architecture.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions may trigger cascading proliferation in the Middle East and beyond. Saudi officials have said their country will demand a nuclear weapon of its own. Similar demands could arise in Turkey, Egypt and other Gulf states. The dangers of nuclear war in the world would increase enormously – and the ill consequences would not be confined to the Middle East.


As a result of its intervention in the Syrian civil war, Russia now has control of upgraded naval and air bases in Syria.

What are Russia’s interests in the Eastern Med, now that the Cold War is over?

Its main interest there – its main interest everywhere – is increasing world energy prices. The Russian economy is largely the business of exporting oil and gas. Russia and Putin depend for their existence on high prices for energy.

It is surprising how many articles are written about Russia’s Middle East or other foreign policies that fail to mention this point.

A key to understanding what Russia is doing in the Eastern Med region is to recognize that it wants to have the power to influence the interests of Saudi Arabia and other important energy producing states.

This helps explain why it’s wrong to say, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry often did, that Russia shares U.S. interests in stability in the Middle East. On the contrary, Russia often favors instability precisely because it contributes to upward pressure on energy prices.

Russia also has major interest in arms sales. This is part of the reason Russia wants to avoid confrontations between Russian-armed forces and Israel. Such confrontations have tended to result in the humiliation of Russian arms, which is bad for business.

I don’t want to suggest that Russia’s policies are driven solely by business considerations, but these economic points are generally given too little attention, so I’m stressing them here.

President Trump’s national security strategy names Russia as one of the two countries in the world that “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity” and that “are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”


The other country described that way in the Trump national security strategy, of course, is China.

Especially in the last several years, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has been exerting itself to become a global military power.

Through prolific naval shipbuilding, the deployment of an aircraft carrier and submarine fleet, development of missile capabilities, the conduct of long-range missions and the August 2017 opening of China’s first overseas military base in Doraleh, Djibouti, China shows its determination to challenge the United States for control of the seas.

Chinese naval forces have been aggressive in the East and South China Seas, making threats against Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbors, building islands through land reclamation and putting military facilities on those islands, and using the islands to bolster Chinese claims to sovereignty over waters that the world in general has long considered to be international.

Part of China’s global maritime strategy – a key element of its so-called Belt and Road initiative – is to build or establish Chinese control over port facilities along major sea lines of communication across the globe.

As the U.S. Defense Department said in its 2018 report on Chinese military power:

“Countries participating in BRI could develop economic dependence on Chinese capital, which China could leverage to achieve its interests. For example, in July 2017, Sri Lanka and a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) signed a 99-year lease for Hambantota Port, following similar deals in Piraeus, Greece, and Darwin, Australia.
“[China’s] military modernization program has become more focused on investments and infrastructure to support a range of missions beyond China’s periphery.”

China owns or operates ports in Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Israel, Greece, Namibia and elsewhere.

According to the Financial Times,

“The Gwadar [Pakistan] template, where Beijing used its commercial know-how and financial muscle to secure ownership over a strategic trading base, only to enlist it later into military service, has been replicated in other key locations.
“’There is an inherent duality in the facilities that China is establishing in foreign ports, which are ostensibly commercial but quickly upgradeable to carry out essential military missions,’ says Abhijit Singh, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. ‘They are great for the soft projection of hard power.’”

These Chinese investments should be evaluated in light of one of the major policy initiatives announced and supervised personally by Xi Jinping: the Military-Civilian Integration Policy. As reported on Chinese state television (June 21, 2017), President Xi said:

“The ideas, decisions and plans of military and civilian integration must be fully implemented in all fields of national economic development and defense building.”

Yet China cannot be thought of simply as an enemy. It is a major trading partner of the United States.

How to deal with China’s aggressive assertiveness, growing military capabilities and push to expand its power is a thorny problem because it’s unprecedented in many ways.

The Cold War with Soviet Union was fundamentally different.

Russia was not a major part of the world economy. It could be squeezed financially as part of a containment strategy.

China is a major player in the world economy. It has enormous economic resources. It cannot be “contained” as the Soviet Union was.

The U.S. is grappling with how to adapt its laws to deal with the dangers of Chinese investment.

The Exon-Florio law created the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (“CFIUS”) to review whether a proposed foreign investment would cause unacceptable harm to U.S. national security.

The Committee includes representatives of the White House, the State, Defense and Justice Departments, the intelligence community and other agencies.

Israel doesn’t have a similar committee. It should.

When Chinese companies come to Israel to make investments and operate businesses – such as the port in Haifa – is there a government committee that considers the national security views of all the relevant agencies? No there isn’t.

Is there an Israeli government committee that takes into account, for example, that China’s control of the Haifa port may make the U.S. Navy less willing to engage in cooperation with Israel’s navy? No there isn’t.

The problem of how to manage the “Cold War” with China is particularly difficult because the distinction between military and commercial technologies has largely disappeared.

I will conclude with the observation that opportunities exist for U.S. and Israel to cooperate to deal with threats to our common interests. But coordinating on China policies is an important condition for taking advantage of those opportunities for cooperation.

I look forward to the discussions in this workshop. With U.S. capabilities so limited, Israel is in a position to expand the role it plays in securing interests that the U.S. and Israel share.

The key to greater U.S.-Israeli security cooperation is developing common threat assessments.

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