From the deck of a ship on the Mediterranean, the islands that pass by appear as calm as the weather. Huge yachts, not warships, are docked in island ports. I haven’t seen a naval officer in ten days. But it has rarely been so in the sea’s brutal past.
The Mediterranean (“in the middle of the earth”) has been history’s constant cauldron. It provided too easy access between three vastly different and usually rival continents — Asia, Africa, and Europe. And it helped birth and spread three major and often warring religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Without it, there would have been no Roman or Ottoman Empire.
Most of the Mediterranean’s history, then, is one of abject violence. The unfortunate islands situated in the sea’s vortex — especially Cyprus, Crete, Malta, and Sicily — were invaded, occupied, and fought over constantly by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Franks, Ottomans, British, Italians, and Germans. To chronicle these islands’ history is to study massive castles and walls, which are still what first greet any visitor to port. The Ottoman Siege of Famagusta on Cyprus, the defense of Malta by the Knights Hospitaller, the German air drop on Crete, and the Allied invasion of Sicily mark some of the most audacious battles in military history.
Gibraltar — which governed who made it into the Mediterranean — and Constantinople — which determined who went in and out of the Black Sea — were often the linchpins of empire. With the completion of the Suez Canal in the 19th century, the Mediterranean revived in the Industrial Age, as the canal soon would become Europe’s shortcut to the oil fields of the Middle East.
For the last 70 years, the Mediterranean has been quieter than at any other time in its long history — at least since the second century a.d., during the reign of the five so-called “good” emperors of Rome, when all the shores of the three continents were tranquil and interconnected by what the Romans called “mare nostrum” (our sea).Why?
Largely because of American warships. Except for the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and occasional violent spillage offshore of the various Middle East wars, the U.S. Sixth Fleet, based in Naples since shortly after World War II, has been able, with its NATO partners, to keep pirates out, aggressors down, and peaceful nations in.
Amid the current violence of the Arab Spring on the shores of North Africa, the Middle East fighting in Gaza and Syria, and Russia’s aggression in Crimea, the Mediterranean nevertheless remains calm. No one today thinks of storming Malta, as did the Ottomans and the Nazis. Sicily is quiet in a way it had never been before 1945. Cretans fear neither Muslim invaders nor German paratroopers. Unlike elsewhere on the seas of the world — the rising tensions in the South China Sea, Iran’s ascendance in the Persian Gulf, the piratical raiding on the Red Sea — there are no active troublemakers on the Mediterranean.
Will that always be so?
If the U.S. recedes and lowers its naval profile, it is not hard to see how the Mediterranean could once again heat up. Amid the relative peace of a divided Cyprus, we forget that the island’s fate has never been resolved. An increasingly Islamist Turkey is becoming neo-Ottoman in its relationship to Greece and Israel. If Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to rebuild its military as the U.S. continues to downgrade its own, it is not hard to envision Russian ships leaving their now-permanent Crimean ports on new missions out of the Dardanelles. China is expanding all the way to African and South American shores, but it so far keeps out of the Mediterranean. But will it always? Iran is wary of sending its warships into the Mediterranean only because of the U.S. fleet.
The great European fleets of the past — the Spanish, the French, and the British — are shadows of their former selves. Some of the worst violence in the world today — the civil war in Syria, the bloodletting in Libya, the war in Gaza — takes place on the shores of the Mediterranean, but so far has not spread to sea.
Americans might think the Mediterranean is too distant to care much about. But from our very beginnings that sea had an odd ability to draw us into its turmoil. “To the shores of Tripoli” is a refrain known to most Americans, and we also remember the Barbary Coast — the scene of our nation’s first foreign fights and our most recent, in Benghazi. The first landing of American soldiers against Germany during World War II was in North Africa, not too far from where Ronald Reagan ordered the Air Force to bomb Libya.
As we dismantle our military, we should remember that history’s natural order of things unfortunately is not peace, but instability and war. Peace, as a character in Plato’s Laws remarked, is a brief “parenthesis.” It occasionally breaks out because aggressors are deterred by the superior military forces of those committed to the general peace — and all nations understand the consequences of weaker aggressive nations’ stirring up trouble. Barack Obama is relearning that ancient lesson as he sends forces back into Iraq against Islamic extremists (whom he once foolishly dismissed as “jayvees”) after he needlessly pulled all deterrent U.S. peacekeepers out of the country and squandered an inherited quiet.
We can see the results of the new lower profile of the U.S. fleet also in the South China Sea, as Japan squares off against China, and South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines anxiously watch. As the world heats up, and as the U.S. global deterrent forces erode, there is no intrinsic reason why history’s most contested sea might not be so again. We should remember that when we talk of defense cuts, and before we pull too many American ships out of a maritime intersection where peace has usually been the exception.