Flash Point in the Eastern Mediterranean

Will conflict in the Middle East trigger the next great power war?

We need a strategy for the Eastern Mediterranean.

This is not a new crisis. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy lived and wrote in Egypt a century ago. One of his short, evocative poems is entitled "In Alexandria, 31 B.C." It is about an itinerant peddler who comes to the city to hawk his wears and is beaten badly by the crowds. The poem ends:

And when he asks, now totally confused, 'What's going on here?'
someone tosses him too the huge palace lie:
that Antony is winning in Greece.

Here, in a few lines of poetry, is a metaphor not just for Egypt, but for the entire Eastern Mediterranean: crowd violence, confusion on the ground, economic disruption, and failing strategic communications.

In the midst of such frustration and seemingly intractable hatreds, it may feel like time to simply disengage and walk away. There is enormous Middle East fatigue in the United States -- the majority of Americans oppose intervening in Syria, and few even try to comprehend it all: Palestinians and Israelis, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Jews, Iran and Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf, Christians and Druze. To analysts, the region is an arc of crisis; to the public, it is just a mess.

But sailing away would be a huge mistake. Like the Balkans in the years leading up to World War I, the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean are a pile of tinder that could ignite a much wider conflict. As with the assassin's shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it is difficult to predict precisely what could broaden the conflict, but it is impossible to ignore the possibility.   

Conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites are bubbling over. Old tensions persist and new ones have arisen over economic resources, notably natural gas fields -- portions of which are claimed by Cyprus, Israel, Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon. And great power interest remains as high as ever, with Russia and the United States routinely operating warships in the region. China and India have also sent naval assets to the Eastern Med, where they join traditional NATO deployments from the navies of the 28-nation alliance. The ships merely reflect a broader military presence.

Today, the Syrian civil war is ground zero, with Iran, Russia, and China on one side, and the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and much of NATO on the other. The spark could come with a confrontation between warships, a major terrorist attack by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah, or the use of chemical weapons, either in the civil war itself or, worse, in Europe.

So the question with which the United States must grapple is what is our strategy in this complex part of the world, lying as it does next to one of our closest allies, Israel, and on the edge of our strongest alliance system, NATO?

First, we should focus on strong relations with our closest ally in the region: Israel. The relations between the American military and the Israel Defense Forces continue to be vital to both nations. We rely on our Israeli friends for intelligence and context in understanding the region. Likewise, we have excellent military-to-military relations with Turkey, a NATO member and a nation with which we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight against the Kurdish terrorists who threaten it. In addition, we are very close with Jordan and have good ties with the Egyptian military.

Over many years, our military has built deep relationships with counterparts at every level. This includes exchanges of military personnel in schools and training commands in the United States; a great deal of military hardware provided, from ships to tanks to planes; assistance in exercises, many of them highly complex; and significant levels of key counterpart visits, conversations, and exchanges. Gifted diplomat-warriors like Jim Mattis, John Allen, Marty Dempsey, Mike Mullen, Dave Petraeus, and many others count their opposite numbers as not only colleagues but, in many cases, good friends. All of this provides some entrée and leverage. We should continue measured military-to-military contact, training, assistance, intelligence sharing, personnel exchanges, and arms sales -- trying to get partners in sync.

Second, we must work in a multilateral context diplomatically. We must continue to pursue the possibility of a Geneva II conference on Syria, as well as strongly supporting the opposition with political, economic, and military assistance. The Assad regime cannot be allowed to remain in power. Similarly, Secretary Kerry's efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian question are worth pursuing. And we have to work with partners like Saudi Arabia to move Egypt toward stability and democracy -- they are in many ways the key to the region, and the ousting of the Islamist Morsy regime appears to be an honest manifestation of the will of a majority of the Egyptian people. A key relationship over time will be between Turkey and Egypt, and finding linkages between them and Israel is squarely in U.S. interests.

Third, there are cyber and strategic communication activities that can help here. We will be unable to fully dominate the flow of information in the strategic communications space, nor can we fully control the cyberworld. But we can work to strengthen the use of social networks ourselves and by our friends to gain information and intelligence; reinforce democracy, rule of law, and due process; and convince "the street" that the United States wants to be part of constructive solutions. Likewise, cyber provides opportunities to advance our agenda while frustrating those of our opponents.

Fourth, we should work on the maritime and strategic resource questions of the region. There will be naval and commercial conflicts, which must be managed. This can be done through confidence-building measures, making sure counterpart navies are in contact and bringing the parties together at conferences, like the U.S. Navy's Strategic Symposium in Newport this fall and NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue.

Above all, we should not give up on the region in frustration. It is worth remembering how long it took us from our own American Revolution in 1776 to simply draw up and ratify a constitution in 1789, put down several revolts and rebellions, create a single currency, and indeed decide what we wanted to be as a nation and a people. Jefferson said, "One should not expect to be carried to democracy on a featherbed." The Eastern Med is far from a featherbed, but U.S. engagement will be an important element in helping bring these nations further along the path to democracy and stability.

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Law & Order: Eurozone

Whose bright idea was it to make a cop drama that's one part murder mystery, two parts The Hague?

There are two conceivable premises for a television series based on global multilateralism: forcing obnoxious foreign ministers to live together in the same beachfront property for a summer, or allowing an elite team of forensic investigators to solve violent crimes in different countries. Unfortunately, a fist-pumping, shot-pounding Sergei Lavrov will have to wait -- as we've now been treated to the second, less satisfying option. If not quite in the Sharknado realm of implausibility, the new NBC drama Crossing Lines, which debuted on June 14, really isn't all that far from it.

The premise is that at a time when overly guarded jurisdictions and national sovereignties have got in the way of solid police work in Europe, the International Criminal Court (ICC) assembles a cosmopolitan cracker-jack cop squad, headquartered in a church-like basement at The Hague and tasked with tracking baddies across the continent as a kind of CSI: Rome Statute. (Suffice to say, no such force exists; ICC cops remain a thing of Fetou Bensouda's imagination.)

As in any good ensemble crime series, each member of the team is equipped with his or her own unique -- but complementary -- skill set, ranging from psychological profiling to computer hacking to state-of-the-art weapons expertise. Helping keep the forensic work to a cool 40 minutes-plus-commercials is a dedicated helicopter (which I doubt the real ICC can afford), and a remarkable device that holographically recreates crime scenes using laser beams. (If one of these has already been invented, then it'd shave a few decades off the Special Tribunal for Lebanon's fact-finding mission.) The team's true superpower, however, is their transnational legal authority that trumps anything that local gendarmeries or interior ministries can throw at them.

That sounds exciting at first, until one consults Article 5 of the actual statute establishing the court, which stipulates that the ICC's jurisdiction encompasses only genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Needless to say, these apply to state or para-state institutions. Yet the targets of Crossing Lines, at least five episodes in, have included an American serial killer, a mobbed-up Irish vixen offing wealthy gentlemen of leisure with polonium-210 (ripped from the headlines!), and a roving fleet of anonymous truck drivers keen on staging couples' fight clubs. While it's true that our radioactive colleen owes a cryptic "debt" to a mysterious Russian who is being set up as the series super-villain -- no doubt with an organized crime and/or FSB connection -- she's still not quite Ratko Mladic or Omar al-Bashir material.

Indeed, not one of Crossing Lines's perps would ever be hauled before the real ICC. "It is a crime of aggression that is ongoing, systematic and cross-border," says Detective Major Louis Daniel (played by Marc Lavoine), a Gallic Nick Fury to this incipient band of eurozone Avengers. He's referring to his first case involving pretty women who are abducted in one city and then ritualistically slaughtered in another. "This is exactly what the ICC does." Except that it isn't. It's what Interpol does, or more precisely what normal police agencies under Interpol supervision do.

Of course, this is a midsummer NBC series, not a documentary -- and if Crossing Lines's only problem were its ham-fisted remit, then this might be excused in favor of other dramatic attributes. As it happens, the narrative arc of the show is banal, the cultural and sexual stereotypes sprinkled throughout are both silly and vulgar, and the dialogue seems written in varying dialects of eurotrash. Consider the origin story unveiled in the two-part pilot which involves both the team's formation and its first assignment tracking a serial killer. All it takes to shake Michel Dorn, a nationally indeterminate senior ICC inspector played by a sententious, Auden-quoting Donald Sutherland, of his quite reasonable skepticism about the legitimacy of a transnational FBI is to have a few poignant lines of an old report he authored on Kosovo quoted back to him by a yummy Italian anti-mafia cop named Eva Vittoria. She's there to make the moral case for an ICC police force, and boy does she make it.

"What man doesn't like a woman to tell him how brilliant he is?" says Daniel, as he assures Vittoria of her powers of persuasion. For some reason, series creator Edward Allen Bernero, himself a former Chicago cop, seems to think that feminine wiles are sufficient at speeding the wheels of international justice in the Netherlands. "A woman's mind is ... quite extraordinary," Sutherland's homme serieux relays to Daniel about the impression Vittoria has made on him, this as he he hands over the nifty ICC badges that make the team's authority official. Let's just hope these guys never have to prosecute Asma al-Assad.

Alas, other characters in the show are no less prone to kicking the viewer in the shin with cliche. Our protagonist, Carl Hickman (William Fichtner, who really does deserve better), is a brilliant criminal profiler formerly with the NYPD but now forsaken by the department after his hand was horribly mangled in the line of duty. When we meet him, Hickman is employed as a trash collector at a carnival in Amsterdam, yet one seemingly able to divine the life story of a bullying  philanderer at a mere glance. What he's doing in sanitation will be illuminated in due course, but lest we have to figure out all by ourselves that Hickman's your gritty, tortured kind of lawman, he tells us in a voice-over: "The only thing keeping me alive was anger and morphine." What's the Dutch for "I'm getting too old for this shit"?

Then there is the miniature Good Friday Agreement brewing in the form of a thwarted romance between Tommy McConnel, an Irish Traveller with a specialty in tactical weapons, and Sienna Pride, a well-bred English rose whose Oxbridge education has made her one of Scotland Yard's ablest interrogators. I've watched enough Downton Abbey to accept Sienna and Tommy's upstairs/downstairs chemistry, but I couldn't contain my laughter at this tossed-off exchange:

Tommy: "Do you even have a gun?"

Sienna: "Never really needed one."

Tommy: "Brits!"

Now, Tommy is described earlier as having served on the police force in Northern Ireland, a place where British authority is not really synonymous with grinning unarmed Bobbies on the beat. But then, the fact that he refuses the offer of a stiff drink from Hickman is enough to prompt the show's only American representative to goggle in disbelief and recall a notorious characteristic of the Irish. (Luckily for us, Tommy's got impossible-to-miss scars from all his "bare-knuckle clan fighting," so there's at least one satisfied stereotype for you.) 

Why did I say the romance between Tommy and Sienna is thwarted? Because she gets killed off in episode one, providing everyone else with an inaugural tragedy to bind them together and underscore the very personalized nature of their work. Not that they need it. Monsieur Daniel's backstory, for instance, involves the murder of his young son via a car bomb planted by an ex-Russian army colonel, Alexander Dimitrov, the spooky offstage Russian I alluded to above, whom Sutherland's character has taken it upon himself to chase around the globe. And have I mentioned the German computer whiz, Sebastian, who's got both an illegitimate child by an old girlfriend and a gambling problem?

Crime series aren't meant to be George Eliot, I grant you, but the crimes at least have to be interesting and compelling. There is no excuse for why the culprit behind the first spate of serial killings turns out to be a nebbishy U.S. embassy official in Paris with questionable diplomatic immunity, easy access to State Department residences abroad, and some very serious mommy issues. A real Portnoy the Ripper, he is, since he buys women's apparel under the cunning handle of "John Smith," which, as Hickman helpfully explains to Pride, is "about as anonymous a name as you could use. But in America." Good to have that cleared up, then.

So far, my favorite guilty pleasure plotline features a gang of faceless long-haul truckers whose idea of a good time is forcing couples with children on the autobahn to battle each other to the death using sticks and pipes. The winners have to live with the guilt of their murders; the losers get to be buried in a mass grave (which is at least war crime-like), and their orphans handed off to the wicked car mechanic whose clientele furnishes the unwilling combatants to the psychotic teamsters. The motive? The mechanic's childless wife always wanted a family of her own, and I guess the procedure for adoption in Germany involves too much bureaucracy.

Not everything about Crossing Lines is the fault of poor execution or lousy exegesis of international law. There's also an intrinsic reason as to why a show about eurozone dragnets can't work, which happens to be the same reason that a show like the original Law & Order worked so well for so long. The latter was set in a single city, extraordinary enough in snapshot form, but also in a state of cultural transformation: the New York of David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg.

Gotham itself was the lead in an ever-changing ensemble cast of interracially-partnered detectives, tough but politically-interesting district attorneys, smarmy defense counsels, insightful shrinks, and perp after glorious perp, ranging from misunderstood crackheads to conniving society wives. Crossing Lines fails because, apart from everything else, it crosses too many lines all at once and never stays put long enough to give even one of its many intriguing world capitals a chance to become part of the action.

My advice: stick the team in Cyprus for the rest of the season and have them investigate Dimitrov's banks accounts.