By Paul Glastris
The Washington Monthly
In November of 1999, President Bill Clinton flew to Turkey and Greece on a trip aimed at easing tensions in the broader Balkan region, and in particular between those two countries. As the Greek American on Clinton’s speechwriting staff, it fell to me to write the address he would give in Athens. The Greek-Turkish problem was not nearly as geostrategically important as the Israel-Palestine situation, but it seemed no less intractable. Sparked by the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, it had roots in the Ottoman occupation of Greek lands centuries before. As recently as 1996, the Greek and Turkish militaries had almost come to blows over the disputed sovereignty of an uninhabited Aegean islet; Clinton himself had had to talk the two countries into holstering their weapons.
Then, in the summer of 1999, Turkey was hit by a devastating earthquake, and the Greeks responded by sending badly needed humanitarian aid—a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy that surprised both sides. A few months later, Greece itself suffered an earthquake, and Turkey responded with assistance. Seizing the moment, the two countries’ foreign ministers, Ismail Cem of Turkey and George Papandreou of Greece, began a round of “seismic diplomacy” meant to explore more permanent ways of building trust. Chief among these was a deal the Clinton administration had been advocating: Greece would end its objection to Turkey becoming a candidate for membership in the European Union, something Turkey desperately wanted. In return, Turkey would amend its constitution to better protect its minorities (including its shrinking Greek population), reduce the role of the Turkish military in civilian politics, and press for a negotiated end to the division of Cyprus that would include the removal of Turkish troops from the island.
None of this was likely to happen, however, without sustained U.S. involvement, and there were two major obstacles to that. The first was a profound undercurrent of anti-Americanism in Greece that dated back to the U.S. government’s ill-advised support for the military junta that ran Greece from 1967 to 1974. The second was Kosovo. In 1998, the U.S. led a NATO bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia that pushed Serb forces out of Kosovo and allowed hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians to return to their homes. Though Greece, a member of NATO, had not stood in the way of the bombing, average Greeks, who generally sympathized with their fellow Orthodox Christian Serbs, were infuriated by it. That fury was focused directly on Clinton.
I was working in the White House at the time of the Kosovo campaign, and remember getting a call from a cousin of mine in Athens, whom I adore, pleading with me to do something to get my boss to end his “crimes against humanity.” I did not share her opinion, having seen Milosevic’s handiwork up close as a journalist in Bosnia. But as I worked on the Athens speech in an Istanbul hotel room on our way to Greece I tried to convey some empathetic understanding of her distress. The Greek leg of the trip was scheduled to last two days, but had been reduced to one after the Greek government said it could not guarantee the president’s safety—such was the depth of Greek anger. As Air Force One descended at night into Athens, we could see out the windows the glow of fires from downtown storefronts set ablaze by leftists protesting the president’s visit.
The next day, Clinton gave a speech that, like Obama’s Jerusalem address, began by expressing his personal identification with his audience. He spoke of gifts of democracy and learning that ancient Greece had given the world, quoting the poet Shelley’s famous line “We are all Greeks.” He hailed the vitality and success of the Greek American community and their contributions to the United States, singling out his boyhood friend from Arkansas, David Leopoulis, “who, after forty-five years, still every single week sends me an email about Greece and Greek issues to make sure I don’t stray too far from the fold.” (That last line, with its charming mix of ingratiation and authenticity, was, of course, ad-libbed.) He detailed the long history of friendship between the United States and Greece, including fighting as allies in World War II.
And then he said this:
When the junta took over in 1967 here, the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interests—I should say, its obligation—to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War. It is important that we acknowledge that.
With those two sentences—still remembered today in Greece as an apology, though in fact it stopped short of that—the president managed to lower the defenses of the entire Greek population, just as Obama’s defense of Zionism would later do in Israel. That made Greek listeners open to hearing the rest of his speech, which was an extended argument for Greece to take the lead in promoting stability and democracy in the region and bridging ethnic and religious divides, especially between itself and Turkey. “We can never wholly forget the injustices done to us, nor can we ever escape reminders of the mistakes we, ourselves, have made,” Clinton said, his words applicable to both his own country and his audience’s. “But it is possible to be shaped by history without being a prisoner to it.”
The speech was an enormous success, hailed by pundits who had only recently condemned Clinton. “The impact, I hope, is that people in our country too will realize that it’s good to look back on our own history and recognize our errors,” a leading Greek think tank scholar, Ted Couloumbis, told the Los Angeles Times. “It takes the capacity to be self-critical to begin settling our own problems with our adversaries.”
A month later, the Greek government dropped its veto of Turkey’s EU candidacy, a risky move domestically but one made less politically painful by Clinton’s speech. Today, tensions between Greece and Turkey still exist, but they are a fraction of what they once were.
Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of The Washington Monthly and a senior fellow at the Western Policy Center in Washington, DC.