As the U.S. Retreats, How Far Will Russia and China Threaten Israel?

While China and Russia extend their strategic reach and influence in the Mediterranean, Israel’s backyard, the Obama administration wants to curtail Israel’s reach regarding Iran.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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A Russian Navy's Kremi class aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea, April 8, 2014.
A Russian Navy's Kremi class aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea, April 8, 2014. Credit: Bloomberg
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

Theodor Herzl, meet Frank Sinatra. The particulars in a moment, but the introduction is prompted by the plan of Communist China and the Soviet Unio... pardon me, Russia to hold joint naval exercises next year in the Mediterranean Sea. This has brought forth a wonderful piece by the Financial Times’ chief foreign affairs columnist, Gideon Rachman. He reckons it will be “quite a moment” when the Chinese navy appears in the Mediterranean. No kidding.

“Beyond symbolism,” Rachman writes, Russia and China are making “an important statement about world affairs.” Both, he notes, object to western military operations close to their borders. “By staging joint exercises in the Mediterranean, the Chinese and Russians would send a deliberate message: if NATO can patrol near their frontiers, they too can patrol in NATO’s heartland.”

This poses what strikes me a serious question for Israel, and not just because of its Mediterranean beachfront. One of China’s clients, after all, is North Korea, which not so long ago was building a nuclear reactor in Syria. Israel put paid to that little demarche. But what’s going to happen if communist China has a fleet of warships standing off the coast? Suddenly things start to look a bit dicier, not that they have ever been without risks.

How does Frank Sinatra become involved? Rachman notes that the Russian and Chinese exercises come as the Russians and communist Chinese are “pushing for a broader reordering of world affairs, based around the idea of ‘spheres of influence.’” They reckon that they should have what Rachman characterizes as “veto rights” about “what goes on in their immediate neighbourhoods.” Hence the Kremlin’s antsiness at a Ukraine allied with the Free World. Hence communist China’s declaration of an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea.

The Obama administration, Rachman notes, has set itself against the idea of spheres of influence. He quotes the American deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, as saying of the Russ aspirations: “We continue to reject the notion of a sphere of influence. We continue to stand by the right of sovereign democracies to choose their own alliances.” That was made in a conference call with reporters in 2009. Rachman also quotes U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s blunder last year, when, he declared: “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”

That was a reference to the doctrine enunciated in a message that the fifth president of America sent to Congress in December 1823. It asserted “as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved” that the “American continents” would be “henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Ironically, the Monroe doctrine was triggered by the same country that is causing so much angst today, Russia, which alarmed Monroe by issuing the Ukase of 1821, forbidding other nations from sailing or fishing within “100 Italian miles” of the American northwest coast over which it had proclaimed sovereignty.

What a contrast Monroe was to Kerry, who renounced the Monroe doctrine without so much as a howdy-do to Congress. No sooner had Kerry spoken than the Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin, made a Latin American tour, stopping in Cuba to forgive 90% of the old Soviet-era debts, in Buenos Aires to cut a nuclear deal with Argentina, and in Brazil to meet with the so-called Brics. He has also stepped in with some help for the regime in Venezuela.

Against all this America is rolling out what the Financial Times’ columnist likens to the “Sinatra doctrine.” That’s a phrase once used in 1989 by the spokesman for the foreign ministry of a dying Soviet Union. The spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, went on the ABC News program “Good Morning America” to declare, “We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine. He has a song, ‘I Did It My Way.’ So every country decides on its own which road to take.”

What an irony that this is the doctrine a major London paper is talking about at a time of American retreat. And what would be the implications for Israel? On the one hand President Obama’s foreign policy brain trust is rejecting the notion of spheres of influence. On the other hand it is rejecting the notion that Israel can act in its own interests in respect of Iran. And the Russian and Chinese fleets will be plying the Mediterranean just as the Americans are warming up for the next presidential election.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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