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Athens in Wartime

At the beginning of March, to protest the coming war with Iraq, I resigned as the political counselor of the US embassy in Athens and left Greece. I returned as a private citizen on April 3, forewarned that downtown Athens would be hopelessly snarled with antiwar demonstrators. I took the metro, and passed safely underneath the chaos. An old man in a blue suit, maybe a Greek Civil War veteran on his way home from a Communist Party demonstration, muttered “murderers, fascists” as I dragged my suitcase past him.

I skulked by the “Fuck USA” graffiti (swastikas for the “S”) to the American embassy the next day to collect my mail. Splotches of bright red paint marred the white marble of Walter Gropius’s 1961 embassy building. Members of the staff had cleaned the paint and egg off the huge blue embassy seal on the façade, and were wrapping it in clear plastic. The statue of General George Marshall in the courtyard was already safely mummified, and they were fishing intact paint balloons out of the nearby reflecting pool—eggs blown empty and refilled with paint had proved more reliable projectiles in the end. One paving stone ended up in the ambassador’s bathroom; the remaining forty-odd windows had cracked but held.

There was no doubt about it. Greek public opinion had been mobilized fiercely against the war. Greeks were seeing on television unrelenting images of maimed Iraqi children, weeping Iraqi grandmothers, collapsed apartment blocks, and makeshift coffins, not the sanitized war Americans were watching. The headlines of the leading dailies competed to emphasize US aggression; and local columnists ranged in their comments from cold irritation to frothing, rabid rage. The US advance to Baghdad was for most Greeks a mad dash for oil, with tank treads grinding over the corpses of innocent civilians. A journalist who mildly commented that the US had more efficient ways of silencing the international media than a tank blast at the Palestine Hotel was derided as an American stooge.

The opinion polls showed deep anger at the US, with President Bush seen as the single greatest threat to the peace of the world. My first conversations with Greek acquaintances confirmed not just that 94 percent of Greeks opposed the war, but that most of them could not help hoping the outgunned Iraqis would somehow stop the US tanks and send the Americans home bloodied. No, people said, they didn’t hate all Americans, just President Bush and his advisers; yes, some of them would put a bomb under the US embassy if they could, but not if people were inside. No, they weren’t afraid of us personally, but they were afraid of what we might do elsewhere in the world.

Once shooting starts, logic does not have much to do with human reactions. My Athenian friends acknowledged that Saddam was a vile tyrant, that the US troops did not kill Iraqi babies intentionally, that oil was not the real issue, and that Iraq would ultimately be returned to its own people freer than it was, and probably happier. But by launching a war to demonstrate its power, by supporting Ariel Sharon’s repression of the Palestinians, by flouting the United Nations, America would reap the whirlwind. In an unstable moral universe, American power had become a fixed point, Greece’s polestar of evil.

Greeks have enjoyed bashing the United States for decades. They have never forgiven the US for sponsoring (as they claim) or doing business with (as we admit) the dictatorship of the colonels between 1967 and 1974. They are ambivalent about our help in the Greek Civil War between 1946 and 1949, and are convinced that our pro-Turkish bias, not the criminal stupidity of the colonels, ensured the partition of Cyprus from 1974 to the present day. Nevertheless, our war had caused a remarkable rebirth of Greek public hatred for the leadership and policies of the United States. This hatred showed only modest signs of subsiding as the Iraqi regime collapsed in mid-April.

Whether they fear us, hate us, or set fire to cars with US plates simply for the pleasure of it, Greeks are locked by geopolitics into a relationship that fulfills America’s usually unobtrusive military requirements. Despite the popular outcry, Greece, in the present war against Iraq, proved a loyal US ally. Thanks to the Greek government’s blanket flight clearances and concessions on security issues, the crucial Mediterranean port and airfield of Souda Bay in Crete quietly handled thousands of US military flights and hundreds of ships en route to the Gulf. Greek military officers, eager to offer their support to the US a year ago in the campaign against terrorism, were cool but correct in maintaining the flow of troops and equipment. And this little-publicized cooperation contrasted—though what the US requested from Ankara was incomparably more difficult to supply—with the inability of the Turkish government to obtain consent for a US armored division to move through Turkey to northern Iraq.

Greeks like inflammatory rhetoric from their politicians but responsible behavior from their governments. This is a difficult balance to maintain in wartime, and the Bush administration owes a debt of gratitude to Greece’s prudent prime minister, Kostas Simitis, and his Atlanticist foreign minister, George Papandreou. Simitis and Papandreou publicly criticized the war, but not as vigorously as the press and public opinion demanded. Both were careful to say from the outset that Greece’s position would be governed by Greece’s national interests and its obligations under international agreements. Greece’s new responsibilities after taking over the rotating presidency of the European Union from January through June 2003 provided an excellent excuse for moderation: Greece’s own strong and principled views, it was said, had to defer to the agreed position of the European Union. Since the EU was bitterly divided and could muster no consensus on Iraq beyond plaintive requests to respect the role of the UN Security Council, the Greek government had little to say.

We should not be surprised that in Greece as elsewhere the US war in Iraq has helped America’s foes and harmed its friends. Even recognizing America’s Greek friends is more complicated than it used to be. The days when the Greeks’ attitude toward the US closely reflected their party affiliation ended along with the political polarization of the cold war. The mainstream center-right and center-left parties had been converging on a mild dislike of the US. The far right, once the firm but embarrassing ally of the US, now detested “globalization” as much as the far left did, hating it less for its “Made in USA” label than for its alleged threat to Orthodox religion and the antique virtues of the Greek race. Small, die-hard cells of “liberals,” sprinkled through three of the four largest parties, still admired the US, but as the war loomed these people, old friends of mine among them, mostly went underground.

Prime Minister Simitis benefited personally from the automatic boost in popularity given to most leaders in wartime. But PASOK, his party, continued to trail the conservative opposition by seven percentage points. The German-educated, European-minded Simitis had never invested much of his political capital in the US. He and President Bush had little to talk about, and Simitis was happy to leave a politically unprofitable transatlantic relationship in the safe hands of his American-born foreign minister, George Papandreou.

Until the war, Papandreou’s friendly relations with Colin Powell and the State Department had not hurt him with the public. PASOK rivals did their best to disparage Papandreou’s US birth and education and his allegedly American ways of thinking, to little effect. Before the war began, Papandreou had distanced himself from the US with an intense, painfully polite, and doomed quest on behalf of the EU for diplomatic alternatives to war. Now, polls and focus groups suggested that his pro-American image had damaged his standing as the leading candidate to succeed Simitis as leader of PASOK and future prime minister.

Kostas Karamanlis, the US-educated president of the conservative opposition New Democracy Party, sidestepped the party’s traditional identification with the US, taking a clear antiwar position and allowing more opportunistic party functionaries to curry public favor by blasting the US administration. The older generation of mostly pro-American party leaders in the parliament kept quiet, unhappy with US policy but profoundly uneasy at the tacit encouragement of anti-American sentiment. Karamanlis ultimately stole a march on the more cautious Simitis; he paid a well-publicized visit to Paris to sign on to a shadowy new French-German-Belgian-Luxembourgian defense alignment designed to show that the US could not take its NATO partners for granted.

The Communist Party of Greece (KKE), predictably, misinterpreted as an insult the ironic congratulations of a leading Athens columnist, who wrote that the KKE had recruited Rumsfeld, Cheney, and company as its American agents. Since 1991 the KKE has been sustained only by its faith that the Americans would some day let slip their veil of civilization and reveal the class enemy in its evil glory. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” indeed recruited to the KKE a new generation of dim idealists, perhaps postponing for another few years their disappearance below the 3 percent electoral threshold.

Before they had the Iraq war to protest, the little Greek community of anarchists and graffiti artists subsisted on various minor causes. Most recently, they smashed windows in support of the imprisoned members of the November 17 Terrorist Organization, the radical leftist group named for a student uprising against the junta in 1973, and responsible for twenty-three murders, including of four Americans, since 1975. Once popular anger over Iraq subsides, they will presumably lose any illusion that the hundred thousand middle-class Athenians who marched with them to protest at the US embassy shared their anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist rage.

Prime Minister Simitis’s hopes for a productive Greek presidency of the European Union were damaged by the invasion of Iraq. Simitis, an austere economic policy specialist, had expected that during his presidency the EU would make progress on the Lisbon Process—boring but necessary reforms intended to make the EU economy the world’s most competitive by 2010. Greece also wanted the members of the EU to harmonize immigration policies and to subsidize Greece’s efforts to police the southeastern borders of the EU against hordes of mostly economic migrants.

Such policy discussions were sidetracked, along with Europe’s much-heralded Common Foreign and Security Policy, by the bitter arguments of the European Council over Iraq. Simitis had been stunned by the rapid collapse of EU unity. Unlike President Chirac, Simitis could not threaten to retaliate against prospective EU members when the leaders of the “Vilnius Ten,” the aspiring EU member states from Eastern Europe, signed a statement in support of the US war with Iraq. Obtaining EU membership for Cyprus was Greece’s single most important foreign policy goal, and it was clear to all that all ten candidate members would enter or none would.

On April 16 the heads of government of the European Union members and aspirant members will meet in the shadow of the Acropolis to sign the treaties of accession for ten new members: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Malta, and Cyprus. Under other circumstances, April 16 might have been a proud day for the United States. Our support has been vital in bringing about this historic moment, for at least eight of the ten new members. The signing ceremony will take place in the Stoa of Attalos, the colonnaded portico built by King Attalos of Pergamon, a second century BC admirer of the classics. In a nice touch of accidental symbolism, the Stoa is American ground, rebuilt with Rockefeller money to house the excavations of the American School of Classical Studies in the ancient Agora, the democratic heart of ancient Athens. In the shadow of the Iraq war, however, no one felt like calling attention to the US contribution to Athens or to a united Europe. Europeans were unsure whether the vision of a united Europe was something the US administration still wanted to endorse, or whether a US endorsement was really welcome.

The thwarted reunification of Cyprus could be scored as collateral damage from Iraq as well. The newly elected Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan had been staggering under the weight of the Turkish economic crisis, a March 10 EU deadline for a Cyprus settlement, and the problems of asserting his leadership of an Islamic political party newly arrived to power in an uncertain democracy. He took office with naive hopes of ramming through a deal on Cyprus as the precondition for Turkey’s eventual EU membership. The political crisis over the US demand that its forces open a second Iraq front through Turkey proved too much for Erdogan. When the dust settled from the failed vote in parliament, Turkey was left with nothing. US economic assistance had evaporated. The Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash was as intransigent about a peace deal as ever; and the Europeans had lost any guarded enthusiasm they might have had for Turkey’s entry into the EU. Simitis and Erdogan had a bleak meeting in Belgrade on April 9 to confirm that dialogue would continue.

But Greeks were less distraught than I had expected about the failure of the Cyprus peace process. Greek enthusiasm has always been limited for the loose federal solution proposed by Kofi Annan. George Papandreou hoped that the lure of EU membership would be enough to persuade both Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders to swallow the territorial and constitutional compromises the plan required. But if they refused, he had successfully persuaded a skeptical European Union that bringing a divided Cyprus into the EU would not be the automatic disaster it would have been in the days when Greek–Turkish hostility had verged on open war. Papandreou’s policy of rapprochement with Turkey and the evident moderation of former Cypriot president Glafkos Clerides helped guarantee that Cyprus would sign its accession treaty, although as a divided island, on April 16.

We harmed Greek and Turkish interests through our decision to go to war with Iraq. Had we hurt America’s own? Notwithstanding the paroxysms of anger the US has inspired, I didn’t find clear evidence in the Athens of 2003 that the exercise of unilateral US power in Iraq gravely harmed the limited interests of the US in Greece. The US undoubtedly gave a boost to the most retrograde elements of Greek political culture. The resulting wave of anti-US rhetoric and vandalism need not automatically translate into a new wave of anti-US terrorism, but it will certainly deter American trade and investment, not to mention tourism, for years to come. The US made a rational, balanced Greek policy more difficult for Greece’s politicians to endorse. It seemed, however, that Greek politicians and senior bureaucrats were still wedded, even if the US was not, to the conviction that Europe needs the US as a partner.

More abstractly, we convinced most of the Greek people that US leadership of the international community has lost its legitimacy. This is a loss for future diplomatic cooperation, but one whose value to the US administration is unclear and in any case subject to permanent renegotiation. The Bush policy exposed the deep cleavages among existing members of the EU, cleavages that could deepen as the EU enlarges. The reaction to EU helplessness on Iraq has increased the pressure on Prime Minister Simitis and his colleagues either to find a genuinely autonomous European defense and foreign policy identity or else to renounce all hopes of it. I doubt that we benefit either from an EU that has gone limp or from one mobilized systematically to be our counterweight.

Few in Europe will be quick to forgive us for blighting one cherished prospect. Inspired, perhaps misled, by the miracles of EU membership in expanding democracy, justice, prosperity, and security in Greece and in Europe generally, a surprising number of Greeks saw the world as an improvable and improving place. Our current leaders, however, have declared the planet a pit of beasts to be cowed. Whether America has become more secure through its conquest of Iraq will not be judged soon, and certainly not from the streets of Athens. From the streets of Athens, however, the world feels a grimmer, less hopeful, and far more dangerous place.

April 15, 2003

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