President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have backed off, at least a little, from his looming Mediterranean Sea showdown with Greece. But if Erdogan decides to escalate, Washington should send him a clear message. In that scenario, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike group should be ordered to conduct exercises in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The Nimitz-class carrier strike group is presently in the Arabian Sea, only a few days’ sail from the area. But such a show of naval force would play Erdogan at precisely the same game he is currently entertaining against Greece. Aggravated by Erdogan’s repeated deployments of energy survey vessels into its exclusive economic zone, Greece has deployed warships to monitor the intrusion. Possessing a larger and more modern navy, however, Turkey has responded by sending ludicrously large warship flotillas to escort its survey vessels. This is a pure Erdogan power play. He’s telling Greece that he’s more powerful and will never back down. This is also a useful domestic message for Erdogan. As he grapples with rising economic fears, the naval games allow him to buffer his nationalist credentials by antagonizing Turkey’s longtime nemesis.
Fortunately, the man who fancies himself a new Ottoman sultan is showing tentative signs of conciliation. Pressured by Germany, Turkish officials have finally agreed to begin negotiations with Greece. Still, Erdogan continues to throw out insults. On Thursday, he suggested that Greece was being “childish” and provocative. (Erdogan should look in the mirror.)
If a compromise can now be reached, that would be very welcome. The United States and the European Union have absolutely no interest in two NATO member states going to war. Russia, however, most certainly does have that Mediterranean interest.
In turn, if Erdogan chooses new brinkmanship, America must step up. Up until now, President Emmanuel Macron of France has led the military messaging to encourage Erdogan to reconsider his calculation. But that might not be enough. As shown by his increasingly hostile rhetoric towards Egypt, it’s clear that Erdogan feels emboldened. The arrival of a U.S. carrier strike group would change things. While U.S. aircraft carriers face new vulnerability in the face of rising Chinese and Russian anti-ship ballistic missile systems, one carrier group could defeat the entire Turkish navy from ranges beyond Turkish striking power. Erdogan knows this even if he would be loath to admit it.
The preference here should be the conclusion of mutually beneficial Greek-Turkish diplomacy. But the U.S. cannot tolerate Erdogan’s effort to turn the eastern Mediterranean into his private imperial playground. He must be corralled.