Risk of an Aegean arms race?

Constandinos Mavris, a taxi driver in New York City, silently listened to the Turkish-language conversation in the back seat, as he drove from Little Italy to Manhattan. Smiling at his customers as he passed Chelsea, he put a Turkish pop tape into his car stereo in a subtle gesture that he understood what language was being spoken behind the glass separator. «Do you know where I come from?» he asked his customers. «Yes,» one of the Turkish customers replied, having already looked at the taxi driver’s name printed on the glass separator. «You’re a neighbor of ours.» During the midnight drive, Mavris, an immigrant from Piraeus and a resident of NYC for over 30 years, recalled «the good old days» when he used to frequent The Grecian Cave, a Greek tavern in New York, with his Turkish friends to listen to the songs of Markos Vamvakaris and Vassilis Tsitsanis, two legendary rebetiko composers and singers. «The governments are stupid not to understand how people feel across the Aegean,» he commented, referring to the numerous political disputes between Ankara and Athens. «We need a bunch of wise men of my generation to sort out the problems.» Mavris was perhaps too naive to think that «the governments are stupid.» Illusions of foreign threat, be it real, half-real or unreal, and political profiting out of hostilities have always been a traditional and, in most cases, an oriental means of political survival for many governments. This also applies for the governments across the most beautiful sea in the world. How, other than exaggerating or fabricating a foreign threat and provoking the masses against it, can governments justify multibillion dollars’ worth of defense spending every year? Hence, Greek Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou’s statement (published in Defense News, April 18) was not surprising; nor was it very creative in content, although it was quite ironic in timing. At a time when the famous sirtaki partners, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, were leading a peace mission in the Middle East, Mr Papantoniou said that «…for Greece the threats are clear: First is the Turkish threat,» and that «…there are specific Turkish claims against our national territory and sovereignty.» No, replied Papantoniou’s Turkish counterpart, Sabahattin Cakmakoglu. «We do not in any way have the intention of threatening Greece… Turkey makes its security and defense procurement plans in line with the requirements of a multi-dimensional viewpoint.» All that talk, inevitably, means more weaponry for the traditional rivals. Greece’s defense procurement priorities, according to Papantoniou, are «main battle tanks, aircraft, frigates and many more.» That must have been breaking news for the world’s multinational weapons suppliers. Every dollar’s worth of arms sales to Greece has double value because they often automatically spark sales to Turkey of at least the same size – and vice versa. And in Ankara, as the country recovers from its worst financial crisis in history, which crippled several large-scale defense programs, the government has approved the resumption of major defense spending, which effectively paves the way for the long-delayed conclusion of contracts for two multibillion-dollar deals soon. The two programs, each worth $1.5 billion, involve co-production of 50 AH-1Z King Cobra attack helicopters with Bell Helicopter Textron Inc, and the purchase of at least four aerial early warning and control aircraft from Boeing Co. «Defense spending went down quite significantly because of last year’s crisis,» Kemal Dervis, Turkey’s powerful economy minister, said in Washington. «But this year there is nothing in our current defense plans that’s in contradiction with our fiscal goals.» The minister was referring to a decision in April 2001 by the Turkish General Staff for the indefinite postponement of 32 procurement programs worth $19.5 billion. After the usual diplomatic courtesy (that «I believe in the long run, with peace in our region, we can hope that our defense needs will not perhaps be as they have been in the past»), Mr Dervis came to the point: «But our neighborhood is not a good neighborhood yet, unfortunately, and Turkey is in a geographical position where a strong defense, strong armed forces and therefore a substantial amount of defense spending will remain necessary in the short term.» His remarks came shortly after Turkey’s Parliament passed a public borrowing law, authorizing the Treasury to resume issuing loan guarantees for procurement programs, defense or otherwise. In response to last year’s financial crisis, the Treasury had suspended all loan guarantees to avoid further ballooning its debt stock. But with the new law the Treasury is legally and practically able to issue loan guarantees and defense programs are within the scope of the new law. Politicians in Ankara and Athens should perhaps have a look at the scraps of metal in which they have buried many billions of dollars in past years but, thank God, never had to use. True, governments can never guess when they will need weaponry to defend their territories, particularly in geographical areas as unstable as the Balkans. But that should not stop them being smart and realistic enough to prioritize their requirements in line with a sensible threat analysis, not a fictitious one. What next? Fleets of Turkish and Greek aircraft carriers on the Aegean Sea? An arms race across the Aegean has always been there, despite seasonal ups and downs, no matter how well politicians like Cem and Papandreou can dance. It is part of the essentials of regional strategy in this part of the world. And it takes scores of top brass buying new weaponry like kids in toy stores do.