‘US averted Greek-Turkish war’ over Imia

For a total of four decades he has been Greece’s most powerful supporter in Washington and has enjoyed the respect of all the American presidents, whether Democrats or Republicans, with whom he has worked. Paul Sarbanes is the moderate legislator who has sought viable solutions rather than pointless confrontation. Benefiting from his influence in Congress, he has convincingly supported the causes of Greece and Cyprus, always taking a moderate approach, bearing in mind the interests of the US. Quiet and unassuming, he has never had enemies and many seek out his advice. At critical phases of Greek-US relations he has acted as a bridge between Athens and Washington; his invaluable assistance in promoting Greece’s positions has allowed him to tell Greek governments some unpalatable truths. In this interview with Kathimerini – given a few days before his visit to Athens this week to receive an award and meet with President Karolos Papoulias, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and PASOK leader George Papandreou – Sarbanes spoke about the role of the USA’s Greek community after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the Imia crisis of 1996, as well as in the early stages of the process for Cyprus’s accession to the European Union. He referred to the more difficult phases of Greek-US relations such as the Bush administration’s recognition of the «Republic of Macedonia» in November 2004. He also accuses President George W. Bush of increasing inequality within the US and isolating the country on the international front. How has the Greek community in the US helped Greece and Cyprus? Over the past few decades the Greek-American community has shown that it has considerable influence, beginning with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus when we got an embargo on the sale of arms to Turkey. That was no small thing. Unfortunately, it ended a few years later without Ankara being forced to back down. A large segment of the Greek community is still working for the Cyprus issue through contacts with members and with representations to the government. During the 1990s they made an important contribution to promoting the process that resulted in Cyprus’s accession to the EU, which I think was a decisive development. Can you imagine Cyprus not being a member of the EU today? What was their role in the Imia crisis? I think we had the US play a very supportive role in the Imia crisis. It was one of those occasions when things could easily have got out of control and resulted in a situation that no one wanted but from which it would have been very difficult for the two countries to extricate themselves. That was averted. Do you think the US averted a Greek-Turkish war? Yes, I do. I know there are some in Greece who have expressed a different viewpoint, but if the US had not played the part it did during those critical days, no one knows what could have happened. How does the Greek community take action, the Church, the political organizations? The Church has an organizational structure that unites all the communities spread around the country and that helps. But it is the political organizations that make up the lobby. Members of Congress, Senators and presidents are all subjected to pressure from many sides. It is important for a community to be able to make its positions clear and not permit opposing goals that might be put forward by other centers, other countries, to prevail. It is particularly important to have contacts with government officials below the president. What do you recall from your collaboration with prime ministers of Greece? I have met and worked with all prime ministers: Constantine Karamanlis, Andreas Papandreou, Constantine Mitsotakis, Costas Simitis and Costas Karamanlis. I have great respect for all of them, irrespective of their political parties. My efforts have always been for Greece, not political parties. I have steered clear of domestic political rivalry in Greece. National issues have always been above politics. I have worked with foreign ministers George Papandreou and Dora Bakoyannis, while working with ambassadors in Washington – whom I must say have all been very capable – has been particularly fruitful. How have you promoted Greece’s positions with US presidents and other officials? I have always tried to explain that Greece’s positions were correct not because they were Greek but because they were fundamentally correct. Have there been difficult periods, such as the 1980s? Today Greece has developed into an independent country but in the past many American officials have acted on the basis of outdated concepts of dependency. You are right, there have been some difficult periods. However the US has to realize that Greek leaders make decisions based on Greek interests. What is important is that Greece has changed. Its economy is doing well, it is a member of the EU and the eurozone, it is in NATO. Greeks are smart people and they work hard but they need to produce a vision for the future. What about November 17? The Greek authorities managed to root out the November 17 terrorist group. One of the group’s victims, George Tsantes, was a friend of mine. I felt that it was a major issue for the US as it was for Greece, and I have said this to my interlocutors. They were killing not only Americans, but mainly Greeks. The Greek people realized that November 17 was blackening Greece’s image in the eyes of the rest of the world. Wiping them out was a great achievement. How do you feel about your son being elected Congressman? I am very happy that he was elected and is serving in the House of Representatives. I hope and am certain that he will rise to the challenge. Surprise at President George W. Bush’s recognition of ‘Republic of Macedonia’ Greece has not found much understanding over the question of the name «Macedonia.» We were surprised when Bush decided to recognize the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as the «Republic of Macedonia.» We were not expecting it. It was not a wise decision at all, because it deprived the US of any possibility of exerting influence. FYROM got what it wanted from the US and so Washington can no longer use recognition as an incentive for a reasonable solution. There is no understanding, although Dora Bakoyannis submitted an excellent explanation for Greece’s decision to prevent FYROM from joining NATO, in an article published (in the Washington Times) shortly after Bucharest. You were against the war in Iraq. Do you feel vindicated? My view was that if we allowed the inspectors to return to Iraq they would ascertain whether weapons of mass destruction were being made there. We had Saddam in a corner. There were no-fly zones over the north, where we were protecting the Kurds, but also in the south, and we should have continued with that approach. Saddam was inhuman and was torturing his people, but you don’t go to war without having guaranteed what will happen afterward and what the consequences will be. Why should a Democrat win the next election and not John McCain? Bush’s foreign policy has been unilateral. He has not consulted our friends and allies. His position is that things have to be done his way. He does not comprehend the complexity of some issues. The Democrats want a society in which everyone will enjoy the benefits of progress and development. Over the past few years there has been terrible inequality in the distribution of income. The Republicans’ policy, which McCain says he will continue, has transferred all the wealth to those who have large fortunes. The gap between rich and poor is widening.