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Columnists

Being Honest with Yourself – the Oz Phenomenon

This is a free country in which every citizen gets to express his view freely and vote the way she likes. I opposed the candidacy of Dr. Mehmet Oz for the open Senate seat from Pennsylvania. Dr. Oz’s career began with an endorsement by Oprah and may have foundered after an endorsement by Donald Trump. He was a problematic candidate for many reasons, not least questioning the 2020 elections (to get Trump’s endorsement) and stating that politicians should participate in decisions about abortion. Much of Pennsylvania’s medical community opposed his candidacy because he had pushed misleading, science-free, unproven alternative therapies as well as fad diets, detoxes and cleanses. An article in Scientific American, a widely respected academic journal, called him out because, while holding a medical license, he built a tremendous following around his lucrative but evidence-free advice. Furthermore, he wasn’t even from Pennsylvania.

For those who believe that a Trump endorsement overrides all objections, the above arguments are unimportant. Without any other consideration, opposing Oz’s candidacy on these grounds alone was a no-brainer for me.

But there was another consideration, one of particular interest to the Greek-American community as well as to Americans of Armenian, Jewish, Syrian, and Kurdish origin. Oz, although born in the United States, holds Turkish citizenship, volunteered to serve in the Turkish Army, and voted in Turkey’s 2018 elections. Oz offered the disingenuous explanation that he maintains dual U.S.-Turkish citizenships to care for his mother in Turkey, who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. (He did offer to renounce his Turkish citizenship if elected; at that point he would presumably no longer have an interest in caring for his mother.) Oz, furthermore, has extensive real estate holdings in Turkey, an endorsement deal with the partly government-owned Turkish Airlines, and appears to have a more-than-passingly good relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He did not conceal any of this information.

This issue did concern responsible Republican politicians. For example, Trump’s former secretary of state and CIA director, Mike Pompeo, who endorsed Oz’s opponent in the Republican primary, told reporters that Oz owes an explanation about the “scope and the depth of his relationship with the Turkish government.” During his tenure as Secretary of State, Pompeo managed to prevent Donald Trump’s friendly relations with Erdogan from harming U.S. interests. Pompeo also deserves credit for having presided over a long-overdue improvement in U.S.-Greek relations. Other members of Trump’s administration short-circuited the former president’s attempts to intervene in a criminal matter involving a Turkish bank run by Erdogan’s son-in-law.

No one, however, could prevent Trump from praising Erdogan, thus enabling his recklessness. Now let’s imagine Oz had won. The Republicans would have had a one-vote majority (i.e., Oz) in the Senate. How would the Senate have dealt with Erdogan blocking the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, refusing to participate in sanctions against Russia, and attacking American allies in Syria? Or, in Greece? How would it deal with Turkish support to Islamic State terrorists in Syria and profiting to the tune of billions first by helping Iran evade sanctions, and now doing the same with Russia? In short, had Oz won, would Erdogan have enjoyed a potential veto over the U.S. Senate?

It appears that a number – I do not know the actual figure – of Greek-Americans in fact supported Oz’s Senate candidacy. This prompted a heated debate in my personal circle. I argued that Dr. Oz, serving in a Senate with a one-seat Republican majority, would be able to override attempts to block further arms sales to Turkey until it behaves in the Aegean. His presence would also encourage Erdogan in his recklessness, a recklessness that threatens American foreign policy goals. One of my interlocutors at first told me, frankly, that he had higher priorities. Securing a Republican-controlled Senate trumped (no pun intended) any other consideration. When I pressed him, he argued that fear of war between Greece and Turkey was vastly overblown and a product of a fevered imagination. To be precise, he told me that this was another example of how Greeks complain too much. “I’ve been hearing the ol’ ‘Οι Τούρκοι θα μας πάρουν τα νησιά!’ mantra since I was a toddler.”

That this argument circulates among a significant number of Greek-Americans frankly terrifies me. The argument has no merit; it only excuses prioritizing Trump. Otherwise, do they believe that the U.S. government has a fevered imagination when it repeatedly warns Turkey to stop provoking Greece with overflights of Greek islands and threatening “to come in the night” to take those same islands? Or, that the Greek Government has been forced to raise its defense budget to levels higher (per GDP) than the U.S. because Mitsotakis has drunk too much ouzo? How do they set priorities?

In the interests of full disclosure, I also hold dual citizenship. I claimed my Greek citizenship after I retired from the U.S. Foreign Service, as have thousands of other Greek-Americans, but I am not running for elected office nor seeking sensitive government employment. (Ny the way, I have been told by a reliable Greek government source that applications for citizenship by Greek Americans have risen dramatically since 2017.)

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