Daniel Speckhard: From Baghdad to Athens

The next US ambassador to Greece, Daniel Speckhard, will be coming from the hostilities of Baghdad to friendly Athens. Instead of dealing with the daily hemorrhage of the American forces in Iraq and the critical coverage of the American media, he will encounter the tranquillity, albeit sometimes feigned, of Greek reality. For American diplomats, the Athens Embassy has lost the prestige it had in the past when vexed bilateral and regional issues (the November 17 terrorist organization, the crisis with Turkey over the islet of Imia, Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, Kosovo and security for the Olympic Games) needed solving and affected American interests. The only unresolved bilateral issue is the inclusion of Greece among those countries whose citizens do not require a visa to visit the USA, and that process is already under way. The Athens post retains its importance to the extent that Greece is incorporated into the global energy system. It is indirectly involved in a peculiar clash of Western and Russian interests and has a recognized role in the Balkans, which remains a volatile region with broad geopolitical ramifications. A typical example of American interest in the region is, of course, Kosovo, which has recently developed into a new bone of contention with Moscow. Not top priorities The topics that concern Greece and which the new ambassador will have to handle over the next three years are not US foreign policy priorities: FYROM’s name, Greek-Turkish relations and Cyprus are not high on Washington’s agenda, although the recent surge in American-Turkish tension has inevitably made neighboring countries more significant. As the US prepares to host an international peace conference on the Middle East at Annapolis in November, it might be useful for it to recall the potential of help from Greece, which has good relations with both Israel and the Arab world. This role emerged during Greece’s presidency of the United Nations Security Council in September 2006, when the first discussion of the Middle East was held at the UN among foreign ministers. Ambassador Speckhard is familiar with the issues that concern Greece from his term as NATO’s deputy assistant secretary general for political affairs, covering political relations with the countries of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and the Mediterranean. He also served as NATO’s director of policy planning, and successfully handled the crisis that threatened to break-up FYROM, for which he won the NATO Service Medal. It is to be hoped that his familiarity with regional leaders will not influence his approach to the issue of FYROM’s name. Speaking last Wednesday before the Senate foreign affairs committee, which, in accordance with the US constitution, must approve his appointment, Speckhard said it was a positive development that there are now mechanisms in both Greece and Turkey that can defuse tension. The new US ambassador to Athens noted that during his posting to NATO headquarters in Brussels, he had worked with Greek diplomats, chiefly on promoting stability in the Balkans, and he praised the leading role that Greece is playing in that region. He described Greece as a «strategic ally» of the US, and noted that the inclusion of Balkan countries in NATO has a stabilizing effect and that stability is in the interest of Greece. Washington does not favor impeding FYROM from joining NATO, as American officials in Washington and Skopje have stated. However, the State Department has said that a country requires a unanimous decision in order to join NATO, so Greece’s position acquires great importance. UN special mediator Matthew Nimetz, US Deputy Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and other leaders have received a clear political message from Athens that if FYROM does not show flexibility and does not agree to a mutually acceptable name, Greece will have no choice but to not permit it into the alliance. Responding to a comment by committee member Senator Robert Menendez that the unilateral recognition of FYROM as «Macedonia» by the US had harmed the interests of Greece, which is an ally of the US, and had undermined UN mediation, Speckhard pointed out that he understood Greece’s concern for «the protection of its rich cultural heritage.» And he added that, as ambassador, he would try to facilitate dialogue between Athens and Skopje, with the aim of finding a solution as stipulated in the Intermediary Agreement. Paul Sarbanes, who for 30 years was the strongest voice promoting Greek issues in Congress, was not on the committee, as he retired last year from active politics. But the hearing indicated that he has a worthy successor in Menendez from New York, who recently threatened to freeze a $7.5 million aid package to FYROM. Aware from his experience at NATO of tense relations in the Aegean, Speckhard said that following the recent elections in Greece and Turkey, there is an opportunity for a new impetus to improve Greek-Turkish relations. Moreover, there are impending visits: to Athens by new Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan and Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to Ankara. The American diplomat expressed satisfaction with Greek support of Turkey’s EU accession, and underlined that the development of a more positive climate between Athens and Ankara would help solve the Cyprus, issue, with which, as he said, the US is ready to assist. In that regard he repeated Washington’s support for a just and viable solution on which the parties concerned agree. Burns, who plans to visit Nicosia soon, possibly in November, has expressed US interest. Speckhard avowed Washington’s firm support for the natural gas pipeline linking Turkey, Greece and Italy, and which the US wants to take oil from Azerbaijan and not from Russia. He also emphasized the longstanding American policy of using different pipelines to transport energy and basically supported the right of American companies to participate in those projects, saying that they should be implemented on the basis of «real market competition.»