OPINION

Letter from Thessaloniki

«I know that you all were expecting Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford. I am very sorry you got the short, fat guy from Queens,» said the 50-year-old, exquisitely dressed, dumpy chap from Queens addressing the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce. And George Tenet, the first ever Greek American to become chief of the CIA, one of the key figures around the US president – along with celebrated advisers such as Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld – continued: «I want you to know that I am probably the only person you will see here all year who is not campaigning for a job! I already have the very best job in the world.» Of course, that was some time ago. Last week, this best of all jobs was suddenly at risk. The whole affair started last January when President Bush, in his State of the Union address, made the case for war against Saddam Hussein, citing an alleged uranium trade deal with Iraq and calling it evidence. Much later, it was proved untrue. The Democratic Party, which has largely gone along with the way the Bush administration has been running foreign policy, called for an independent inquiry. Subsequently, President Bush denied that he knowingly gave out false information. Inevitably, an increasingly embarrassing row followed. George Tenet, a holdover from the Clinton administration, promptly responded with some irritation that his organization had been wrong to let President George W. Bush tell the American people that Iraq has been trying to obtain nuclear material from Africa. Luckily, on Saturday, President Bush, from Africa where he was on official business, said that he had confidence in CIA Director George Tenet and considered the whole affair to be closed. A good thing that was too. People everywhere are greatly concerned about nuclear weapons. Whatever else a superpower does, most people judge it mainly on the over-narrow criterion of arms control. Well, with George Tenet, who presents himself as a Greek American, still in his post, the notorious CIA is in good Greek-American hands. Because «if you’re Greek, you have to be good at what you do,» as former presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos once said. He surely meant if you are Greek American. Because this anticipated excellence – whether in a flourishing souvlaki restaurant in the Midwest or Washington’s highest government offices – is fulfilled by personalities like George Tenet. Born January 5, 1953, two months after his mother arrived in the USA from Himarra (today in Albania), Greek Orthodox George Tenet attended a Greek school in New York, and has always been known as an active member of the Greek-American community in Washington DC. In 1978 he received a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University. Among other things, he has worked for the American Hellenic Institute, a Greek-American public affairs (read lobbying) organization fighting the good fight for this or that issue on Capitol Hill. Is all that good for Greece? Known as withdrawn, observant and icily objective in a crisis, Tenet is on record as stating: «I’ve always believed that there is no room for partisanship in the conduct of our intelligence community. We must always be straight and tell the facts as we know them.» Now the next question rising is: Is it really positive to be of Greek descent in the US? Sure enough, ancient Greece has always been some source of inspiration for Americans. However, the United States Government has, officially, always observed a strict neutrality in the conflict between Greeks and Turks, or whomever. This goes back to the 19th century when only the outcome of the 1821 Greek War of Independence was to dictate a change in the official American attitude. And it was only in 1833, after the war had been fought and won by the Greeks, that the United States acknowledged the sovereignty of the then-Kingdom of Greece. Indicatively, it has been documented that «Americans might have held further aloof from the Greek cause had it not been for a variety of American interests in the Mediterranean region during the Greek War of Independence,» wrote Edward Mead Earle in an article titled «Early American policy concerning Ottoman minorities» (Political Science Quarterly, XLII, 1927). The fact that Greece, a Christian nation fighting for liberty and emancipation from Muslim rule, never played a role for the government of the United States, which enjoins a separation of Church and State. This, for sure, may be a democratic trait, yet it has, once again, created problems for American schools that find it impossible to introduce the teaching of values – honesty, generosity, loyalty and self-discipline – without stumbling over religion. That is because religion may not be taught in any American school paid for with public money. It is clear that the «moral values» spoken of on every side mean different things – sometimes contradictory things to different people; Christians, Jews and Muslims. Speaking of moral values, George Tenet seems to be one of those rare CIA directors (prior to his appointment, the agency had had five directors in six years) who is concerned with the morality and image of the Central Intelligence Agency, which for many people is a dirty word. Some aver he is an exceptional case of an individual attempting to explore the nature of justice. «People come and say to me, ‘Mr Director, how do you cope with the stress, how do you not let the criticism bother you?’ I have a very simple answer; it’s not an answer that can be found in any text book. The answer lies in being blessed by a great family, by a great heritage, a great culture and a great religion.» That is an excerpt from his speech at a recent banquet of the Pancyprian Association of America, where he was honored with the prestigious 12th Annual Freedom Award. Speaking in front of his 85-year-old mother Evangelia, and his famous cardiologist twin brother, Dr Bill Tenet, the CIA director clearly pointed out where he owes everything. Although I have decided not to strain the Greek analogy any more, I can barely restrain myself: Indeed, isn’t religion the source of – most – civic virtues?