NEW YORK – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez joined The National Herald's Co-Editor and Publisher Eraklis Diamataris for a live interview on July 29 via Zoom on Facebook Live.
The discussion focused on Greece, Cyprus, and other foreign policy issues. Sen. Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a well-known Philhellene who condemned the conversion of Aghia Sophia into a mosque and participated in the recent PSEKA event commemorating the 46th dark anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, once again voicing his support for the reunification of Cyprus.
Diamataris introduced the Senator to viewers and began his questions by expressing his concern that the United States is ceding international leadership, spotlighting the announcement that the United States wants to withdraw 12,000 soldiers from Germany, “which will cost points for our national security, tangible dollars, and imperil the eastern borders of Europe and NATO.”
Menendez agreed, saying, “this is a tenuous moment and a decision of the administration that is a detriment to the national security interests of the United States and our NATO allies. I think President Trump wrongly sees the troops in Germany as somehow simply protecting Germany, but Germany is a platform for the United States in terms of forward mobilization. It is a vanguard against Russian aggression … So in the Kremlin, Putin must be really happy because any further drawdown of the U.S. presence, particularly in Europe, is an opportunity for his aggression to go unchallenged … Putin only understands strength and this is a sign of weakness and it is a destabilizing factor.”
Diamataris then asked the Senator to comment about a recent article in the New York Times about the leadership of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and what it says about “our ability not only to claim the moral high ground around the world but to also effectively deal with our adversaries and friends alike.”
Mendendez said that the essence of the article was a report that the Senate Foreign Relations committee just issued under his leadership called The Decimation of the State Department. He continued, “first of all we get budgets sent to us that would cut the State Department as a whole by nearly 30%. Well, there is no way that we could be conducting foreign policy and U.S. national security interests with such dramatic cuts.”
He noted also that in the midst of an opioid crisis, “they dramatically cut the international law and narcotics enforcement division of the State Department. Crazy!”
Menendez pointed out that “there are critical parts of the department that have never even had a nominee offered to the committee for nomination,” by Trump, “and then we have positions for which there have nominees that are dramatically ill-qualified … The totality of those actions in the State Department has really made it a skeleton of what it was.”
Beyond those matters, regarding the policies themselves he said, “we have an administration – and I don’t say this as a partisan because I have worked with Republicans and Democrats alike on foreign policy and national security – that embraces some of the most authoritarian figures in the world … and stiff arms and actually disrupts the relationships with some of the strongest, longest allies we’ve had. And that is a problem.”
The problems created in those bilateral relationships have global consequences as the Senator says that “we cede our role in the world by not being actively engaged, and when we do so, China and Russia fill in the void – and that certainly isn’t in the national interest of the United States.”
Regarding Greco-Turkish relations, Diamataris noted the letter the Senator recently wrote to Pompeo about Greece and Turkey and asked about the then-impending appearance the Secretary of State before the Foreign Relations Committee.
Menendez said he wanted to first accentuate the positive: “I am pleased to see U.S. troops moving through Greece on their way to annual training exercises in Europe. That is another clear sign that the U.S. and Greece are deepening their security ties and our relationship is indeed the best it has ever been, but we can’t rest on our laurels. There is a lot more to do. The East Mediterranean legislation that I authored and became law charts a strategic course for the region, one that deepens our relationships with some of our closest democratic partners, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, and we need to take action to consolidate these gains.”
That said, Mendendez continued, “my letter to Secretary Pompeo was basically about President Erdogan and Turkey under his leadership … Turkey should have been sanctioned under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a law I helped write – the purchase, payment, receipt, and possession on S-400 [missiles from Russia] are clearly in violation of those sanctions and yet the administration has refused to [implement them]. Erdogan violates the territorial waters of Greece and Cyprus … and the State department puts out statements saying ‘we call on all sides to lower the tensions’ – well, Greece and Cyprus are not invading their own territorial waters – Turkey is!”
The Senator bemoaned “this constant unwillingness to call out Turkey,” citing provocations like the conversion of Aghia Sophia into a mosque, Ankara’s massive human rights violations, and its intervention in Libya, which “is creating a huge disruption and the administration doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it … the EEZ Turkey is now claiming is outside international law … look, enough is enough!”
“But the answer I got back to my letter,” he complained, is “‘we fully respect the law and we will enforce it,’ – well, it’s been a year and they haven’t enforced it. That was a non-answer and we will pursue it” when the Secretary testifies.
Diamataris noted that independent observers were surprised that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, not President Trump, was the one who called Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to defuse the most recent crisis and asked again if Washington is ceding international leadership.
“You point out [and important] reality. It’s when Chancellor Merkel raised her voice about some of the actions Turkey was taking … and said ‘ultimately you’re going to have a problem with all of Europe, not just Greece,’ that Erdogan backed down. When Macron raised questions about Libya there was a reluctance by Erdogan to continue … Erdogan is one of the world leaders with whom Trump speaks quite often, yet we don’t seem to be making any progress. I don’t know what he is talking to him about … I don’t know whether he is challenging or cajoling him … I am seriously concerned Erdogan thinks Trump is in sympathy with him … and feels he has carte blanche … this is part of why we have lost dramatic ground in Europe and the world … I’m afraid this administration has dug us into such a deep hole that it’s going to take us quite some time to dig ourselves out.”
Asked about what he and Congress can do, Menendez noted that the Framers of the Constitution intended Congress to be a co-equal branch of government as a check and balance on the President. He said in practical terms, “we express our opinions as a Congress, pass resolutions, and seek to prod the administration to follow the law – as with CAATSA – and we can sometimes deny their nominees or resources, which we are looking at, but you have to have colleagues on the majority side willing to do that.”
He also believes that the National Defense Authorization Bill will send clear messages to Turkey and noted the bipartisan opposition to the withdrawal of troops from Germany.
Diamataris then asked “how badly has the failure of the United States to mitigate COVID-19 and get it under wraps eroded our influence in the world,” to which Menendez replied bluntly, “you hear voices around the world asking ‘can we truly depend on the United States as an ally.’”
The informative interview concluded on a more personal note.
“Being from an immigrant family … as the son of immigrants from Cuba,” Diamataris said, “how does it feel hearing top members of the Administration speaking the way they do about immigrants – in a country founded and built by immigrants?”
“It hurts me deeply,” the Senator replied. “My parents were political refugees … he speaks about that and those seeking political asylum in such horrific ways. I have never seen a more xenophobic administration.”
Asked by Diamataris “what made you get so deeply involved in Greek and Cypriot issues,” Menendez said that while as the son of refugees he feels a bond with “my friends like Tassos Zambas and others who had to flee from their ancestral homes,” he emphasizes all the close personal friendships he has developed with Greek and Cypriot-Americans, including Philip Christopher, Panikos Papanikolaou, and the late Nikos Mouyiaris.
The Senator still hopes that with American leadership the Turkish occupation of Cyprus will end and the country will be reunified to the benefit of all Cypriots.