Military Helps New Ambassador Improve Ties
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
ATHENS, Greece, Apr. 29, 1998 Nick Burns, former State Department spokesman-turned ambassador, has gotten a helping hand in his new job from the U.S. armed forces.
Despite troubled political relations between Greece and the United States and the withdrawal of most U.S. forces, strong military ties have survived, Burns said here April 21. "I can't say enough about the effective diplomacy of the U.S. military in Greece. Our military has done an outstanding job at trying to cement the relationship," he said.
Burns arrived in Greece as U.S. ambassador about five months ago. Since then, he said, six top U.S. military leaders have visited Greece: Army Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme allied commander Europe and commander, U.S. European Command; Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Army Gen. Dennis Reimer, Army chief of staff; Air Force Gen. John Jumper, commander, U.S. Air Forces Europe; Adm. Thomas J. Lopez, commander, Allied Forces Southern Europe; and Vice Adm. Charles S. Abbot, commander, Sixth Fleet.
"That kind of activity is extraordinary," Burns said. These visits send "a real signal we're trying to elevate the relationship."
Excellent relationships exist between senior American and Greek military officers, many of whom have attended military schools and training in the United States, Burns said. The Greek armed forces' chief of staff, for example, is a member of the Fort Leavenworth Hall of Fame, he said, adding, "These guys really prize their military ties."
Thousands of U.S. service members were stationed in Greece in the 1980s; today there are only about 750. Due to a high terrorist threat, they receive hazardous duty pay.
"We have a terrorist problem here," Burns explained. "The Greek terrorist group 17 November has killed five members of our mission here in the last 20 years, including two military officers. They are still targeting Americans." In the past two months, the terrorists claimed responsibility for bombing seven American businesses, he said.
Because of this threat, Burns said, no U.S. military warships had visited Athens in the six years prior to mid-April, when the USS Laboon [Arleigh Burke Class Aegis destroyer], docked.
"It had a very positive visit, supported by the Greek government," Burns said. "We want to try to do more things like that to normalize this relationship, to show people that despite all the problems of the past and despite the terrorist problem, there are things we can do to make this relationship more normal. The military side of the U.S. government has done a very good job at that."
The United States used to have an air base, a naval base and some communications facilities in Greece. They were closed in the early 1990s. Today, there is only a leased U.S. naval facility on Crete and a Defense Cooperation Office at the embassy in Athens, Burns said.
"Despite the fact we don't have a heavy base presence, we still have a heavy military relationship," he said. "We are still the primary source of military security, hardware and cooperation."
Greece is embarked on a military modernization program involving $17 billion over five years. In the next eight to 12 months, Greek officials are to select a new fighter aircraft, a new airborne early warning system, a new air defense system, a new main battle tank and new naval armaments.
Though the U.S. presence is smaller, the two nations' militaries continue to work side by side during bilateral and NATO exercises.
A U.S.-Greek military exercise called "Alexander the Great" is slated for the first week in June, Burns said. U.S. platoons will serve within Greek units and vice versa, in a totally integrated, amphibious exercise.
Greek troops also participate in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and other NATO exercises. Greece, like Turkey, has proposed setting up a Balkan peacekeeping battalion.