President Bill Clinton’s visit to NATO allies Greece and Turkey is raising new questions about the ongoing strategic relationship the United States has with these two historic rivals, particularly in the light of the anti-American demonstrations which delayed and shortened the planned presidential visit.
It was U.S. support of the pro-Western governments of these two countries in the late 1940s against a widely-perceived communist threat which most historians point to as the origins of the Cold War. As NATO’s southeastern flank, their strategic location to both the Soviet Union and the Middle East made them the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, primarily military, outside of Israel and Egypt. Direct grants of armaments were phased out only last year; the Clinton administration has pushed hard for arms sales to and ongoing strategic cooperation with both Greece and Turkey.
On several occasions, most recently last year, the United States has had to intervene diplomatically to prevent war from breaking out between Turkey and Greece. Such a war between two heavily armed and relatively developed nations would not only be a frightening scenario on humanitarian grounds, but one which could seriously destabilize the entire region. Avoiding such a war has been a major pre-occupation of successive U.S. administrations going back several decades.
The recent anti-American protests in Athens occurred on the anniversary of the 1973 massacre of students by troops of the right-military junta which ruled Greece at the time. The U.S. government was a strong supporter of the dictatorship and many Greeks believe the U.S. played a role in its overthrow of the country’s democratic government in 1967. It is not surprising, then, that such resentment against the U.S. role in the country would come to the surface during such a commemoration.
There is also resentment against the U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia this past spring on both moral and legal grounds. Most Greeks were and are opposed to the regime of Serbian Slobodon Milosevic and were sympathetic to the plight of the Kosovar Albanians. Yet there was widespread anger at the use of military force against the Serbian population, who share with the Greeks an Orthodox Christian heritage, particularly as the costs in civilian lives and infrastructure became increasingly apparent.
Most of the anti-American sentiment in Greece, however, involves the island nation of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, nearly 80 percent of which is ethnically Greek.
In August 1974, in reaction to a coup by right-wing Greek Cypriots which was thought to threaten the island’s Turkish minority, Turkish troops—using U.S. weaponry—invaded. Within days, they seized the northern 40 percent of the country and engaged in ethnic cleansing against the ethnic Greek population. As many as 2000 civilians are believed to have been killed. The United Nations Security Council condemned the invasion and called for Turkey’s immediate withdrawal. Congress immediately cut off aid, but it was restored in 1977 after strong pressure from President Jimmy Carter, who insisted that a resumption of aid would make it easier for the Turks to withdraw. The island remains divided, but billions of dollars worth of armaments has continued to flow to the Turkish occupiers.
Greece is certainly not blameless for the impasse in the negotiations, nor is the pre-invasion history of discrimination, threats and broken promises by the Greek Cypriot majority a fabrication of Turkish propagandists. Yet the U.S. willingness to starve Iraqi children through draconian sanctions for their government’s violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions while arming the Turkish government despite its ongoing violations UN Security Council resolutions compounds Greek resentment.
Those who support human rights and international law oppose ongoing U.S. military aid to Turkey on other grounds as well. Turkish repression of the Kurdish minority in the southeastern part of the country has been severe, with the Turkish armed forces using U.S. weapons in widespread attacks against civilian populations, destroying over 3000 Kurdish villages in recent years. Turkish forces have periodically crossed into Iraq into the UN safe haven to attack Kurds as well, with the U.S. virtually alone in the international community in backing such illegal incursions.
In addition, Turkey has yet to account for its genocide against its Armenian population over eighty years ago in which over one million civilians were slaughtered. In order to please its Turkish clients, the U.S. government has refused to even publicly acknowledge the genocide took place, despite the widespread historic documentation of the atrocities.
This support of the Turkish government—including the years it was led by a brutal military government—has been deeply troubling for advocates of a U.S. foreign policy more supportive of human rights and international law. Such pandering to the Turkish government was rationalized during the Cold War as necessary to back this key ally which bordered the Soviet Union. Today, this veneer is gone.
The United States reassess its close military cooperation with Greece and Turkey, particularly as it becomes apparent that the most likely scenario for their use in an inter-state conflict is against each other. Neither country is under threat from a foreign invader. Nor is there any risk of an internal rebellion by radical forces, particularly since the effective surrender of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) earlier this year.
Both countries are struggling economically, particularly Turkey following its recent devastating earthquakes. The large amounts of money spent for American armaments, as well as the costs for personnel, training and spare parts, is money which could be better spent by both countries for sustainable economic development.
President Clinton began his visit by praising Turkey’s “impressive momentum” in “deepening its democracy and strengthening human rights” and calling for Turkey’s admission to the European Union. Such congratulations are premature, given Turkey’s continuing spotty human rights record. The Clinton administration should instead stand with the EU which has for years opposed Turkey’s entry, in part on human rights grounds.
Prodded by President Clinton and other world leaders, Turkish and Greek leaders in Cyprus have announced they will resume UN-sponsored talks in early December. This is positive. However, if President Clinton is really interested in peace and security for the region, he must insist on a withdrawal of Turkish forces and a settlement which both reunites the island while protecting the country’s Turkish minority. Instead of pushing for more arms transfers, he should help both sides agree to arms control, confidence-building measures, and a security regime which would address the legitimate strategic interests of both sides.
President Clinton must also insist that Turkey recognize the cultural and political rights of its Kurdish minority, acknowledge Turkey’s 1915 genocide against the Armenians, and take stronger steps towards democracy and political pluralism.