OPINION

Changing US foreign policy

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as senators showed understanding for the issues of interest to Greece and will continue to do so, says Alexi Giannoulias, the Greek-American treasurer of Illinois and Obama’s personal friend, in an interview with Kathimerini. Giannoulias is in Athens today accompanying Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who is visiting Cyprus, Greece and Turkey on his own initiative and not in cooperation with the White House. The 32-year-old Giannoulias confirms his interest in running for the Senate seat vacated by Obama and filled – by appointment until 2010 – by Ronald Burris. Leading members of the Greek-American community are encouraging him to run, promising to support him, as they see in him the next Paul Sarbanes or Mike Dukakis. Giannoulias’s relationship with Greece is very close. His parents were born in Kalavryta and Sfakia, he spent more than a year in Athens playing basketball for Panionios and he speaks Greek fluently. What is the purpose of your visit to Athens, Nicosia and Istanbul? I am accompanying Senator Dick Durbin, the assistant majority leader in the US Senate and the senior senator of my state, who is on a congressional delegation trip. It is an opportunity for the senator – who is not only one of the most influential members of Congress, but has been supportive of Greek issues in the past – to learn more about the situations in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey and engage with three allies. How did you meet and come to know President Obama? We met playing basketball, and became friends. I worked on his 2004 Senate campaign, and we have cooperated closely in politics ever since. How would you describe your relationship with the president? Does he consider you a friend? President Obama is a close friend, very much like family. He is my political mentor, the person who inspired me to dedicate my career to public service. What are his domestic priorities. I assume the economy, healthcare, education? Right now, the priority for all political leaders is the economy. The economy is the broad umbrella, however, under which stabilizing the financial system, rebuilding our infrastructure, reforming healthcare and improving education all fall. Can he and will he change the image of the USA in the world? He absolutely can change America’s image, and to a large extent already has. What are his priorities in foreign policy? I assume the Middle East, talking to Iran, Cuba, getting out of Iraq, the fighting in Afghanistan. And will he ask Greece to participate more in the international force in Afghanistan? In more general terms, it seems that his priority is changing the orientation of American foreign policy. That means engaging allies, not creating a false choice between America’s values and America’s security, and using all the tools at his disposal, including talking to our enemies and putting our forces where they are needed the most. Given the appointment of high-level envoys – former Senator George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke – we can expect plenty of attention to be given to the greater Middle East – all the way to Afghanistan and Pakistan. As for additional allied troops in Afghanistan, I believe that the president is willing to commit additional US troops and would be looking for substantial help from NATO allies, especially in stabilizing what he considers the front line in the war against terror. Given the animosity of the [election] primary season, how will President Obama cooperate with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? I believe any lingering animosity is more imagined than real. Secretary Clinton worked hard during the general election for President Obama, and it is important to note that he chose her freely. To date, she has been echoing his priorities and general foreign policy orientation. You were co-chairman, along with Eleni Tsakopoulos, of Greek Americans for Obama. How do Greek Americans view him? Did they vote for him over John McCain, and what do they expect from him? Greek Americans view President Obama as most other Americans do – with hope. The Greek Americans who voted for him voted for him for a variety of reasons – but clearly they all wanted a change in some aspect of the Bush presidency – whether it be on the economic front or on Greek issues. The Macedonia name dispute is a very sensitive issue for Greeks and Greek Americans. Can they count on his understanding and support, and will the president use his influence over Turkey to stop its aggressive behavior in the Aegean, achieve a fair solution on Cyprus, and respect rights of the Patriarchate? President Obama – both as a senator and a candidate for president – and Vice President Biden have developed a record of understanding of all of these issues. They have supported a mutually acceptable resolution on the name of FYROM, the honoring of the Patriarchate’s religious freedom, and honoring the rule of law and human rights in Cyprus. Once again, their past positions mirror their present foreign policy orientation, that there should be no inconsistency between America’s values and its security/interests. A lot of Greek Americans look up to you as one of the «rising stars» of the community. How does it feel, and do you plan to run for the US Senate in 2010? We miss the presence of Paul Sarbanes. I am seriously studying a run for the US Senate in 2010. Many influential leaders – both in politics and in society at large – have urged me to consider such a run. My state and our nation face serious challenges and, to really effectuate change, we need a new brand of leadership. If the Senate presents me with an opportunity to build on what I have been able to accomplish as state treasurer and serve both Illinois and the US better, I have to consider it. How influential is the Greek-American community in the US political system? In many cases, it has been very influential – including in the case of my election – and, at the same time, the community has barely begun to realize its political potential. Finally, on a more personal level, how long did you live in Athens and how did it feel? I lived just over a year in Greece and remember that time as one of the most wonderful periods in my life. I enjoyed every moment and it was very special to be able to live in the country where my parents grew up.