Wednesday, on his last foreign trip as president, Barack Obama will address the Greek people in Athens before heading to Germany. This was supposed to be a legacy-enhancing victory lap where the president would signal confidence in liberal democracy to a continent roiled by the rise of an illiberal right. Now, after the Trump victory, it is going to be…well, we shall see what he says.
In Greece he will, at the very least, have to thread several needles simultaneously. He will have to find words that express his administration’s support for a debt relief deal for Greece—which he wisely wants to accomplish before he leaves office, knowing the next administration has zero interest in such a deal — without alienating Greece’s European lenders or discouraging further economic reform in Greece. He will want to praise Greece’s exemplary handling of the refugee crisis without encouraging more refugees. And he will need to signal solidarity with Greece over its very real Aegean security concerns without provoking the Turkish president into doing something stupid.
Seventeen years ago, President Bill Clinton faced his own tricky set of challenges when he traveled to Turkey and Greece with the aim of easing tensions between those two countries and in the broader Balkan region. As the sole Greek American on Clinton’s speechwriting staff, it fell to me to write the address he would give in Athens.
The NATO-led war in Kosovo had ended just six months earlier and nerves in Greece were still raw. That summer also witnessed rounds of “seismic diplomacy” between Greece and Turkey in response to devastating earthquakes in both countries. This diplomatic opening promised better Greece/Turkey relations after decades of tension, but nothing was foreordained. Just three years earlier, the Greek and Turkish militaries had almost come to blows over an uninhabited Aegean islet and Clinton himself had had to defuse the situation.
Greece’s prime minister at the time, Costas Simitis, and his foreign minister George Papandreou, were center-left reformers in Clinton’s own “Third Way” mold. The president and the members of his foreign policy team I worked with – Chief of Staff John Podesta; National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and his deputies Tony Blinken, Phil Gordon, and Tom Malinowski; US ambassadors to Greece and Turkey Nicholas Burns and Marc Grossman; and State Department Greek desk officer Alec Mally – wanted to use the upcoming Athens speech both to support the Simitis government’s internationalist policies and to encourage them to go further. That included having Greece play a lead role in moving Serbia back from dictatorship and conflict with Europe to democracy and participation in Europe. And it meant Greece negotiating an audacious deal with Turkey. Under such a deal, Greece would end its objection to Turkey becoming a candidate for membership in the European Union, something Turkey desperately wanted. In return, Turkey would amend its constitution in ways that Greece, the United States and the rest of Europe wanted (more protections for minorities, reduced influence of military in civilian affairs, etc), as well as reviving negotiations over Cyprus.
None of this was likely to happen, however, without sustained US involvement, and there were two major obstacles to that. The first was a profound undercurrent of suspicion and animosity in Greece towards the United States that dated back to the US government’s ill-advised support for the military junta that ran Greece from 1967 to 1974. The second was Kosovo. Though Simitis’s government had not stood in the way of the US-led NATO bombing campaign and had allowed NATO troops to traverse Greek territory, the war infuriated the bulk of the Greek public. That fury was focused directly on Clinton.
I was working in the White House at the time of the Kosovo campaign, and remember getting a call from a relative of mine in Greece, whom I adore, pleading with me to do something to get my boss to end his “crimes against humanity.” I did not agree with my relative’s opinion, having seen Milosevic’s handiwork up close as a journalist in Bosnia. But as I worked on the Athens speech in an Istanbul hotel room on our way to Greece — having previously sought the advice of many Greek-American friends — I tried to convey some empathetic understanding of my relative’s distress.
The Greek leg of the trip was scheduled to last two days but had been reduced to one after the Greek government said it was unable to meet the US government’s stringent demands for added security. Those demands were based on concerns about threats from violent protesters and still-at-large November 17 terrorists (we were scheduled to arrive in Greece on November 19). As Air Force One descended at night into Athens, we could see out the windows the glow of fires from downtown storefronts set ablaze by protesters outraged by the president’s visit.
At a state dinner at the Zappeion Hall that evening, the president, First Lady Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and the rest of the US entourage, listened to Greek president Costis Stephanopoulos deliver a stern lecture on the perfidy of the Turks and the forgotten suffering of Greek-Cypriot refugees. Some of my colleagues interpreted this as a further sign of disrespect towards Clinton. But the president took it in stride. Perhaps he understood that Stephanopoulos was playing, as we say in America, the “bad cop,” giving voice to Greek public opinion. (The next day, Simitis, playing the “good cop,” would offer much more conciliatory remarks.)
When I awoke the next morning at the Athens Hilton, I looked out the window and discovered, to my horror, that it was raining. This was a problem because the speech I had written began with the president contemplating the wonders of the Acropolis, which he was supposed to visit that very morning. In a panic, I began thinking through alternative openings for the speech. Then I turned on the TV news. There on the screen was the president, with his daughter Chelsea, holding an umbrella and cheerfully touring the Parthenon.
The president then returned to the Hilton, where he was scheduled to give his big address. After a generous introduction by Simitis, Clinton launched into his speech by expressing his personal identification with his audience. He spoke of the gifts of democracy and learning that ancient Greece had given the world, quoting the poet Shelley’s famous line “We are all Greeks.” He hailed the vitality and success of the Greek-American community and their contributions to the United States, singling out his boyhood friend from Arkansas, David Leopoulis, “who, after 45 years, still every single week sends me an e-mail about Greece and Greek issues to make sure I don’t stray too far from the fold.” (That last line, with its charming mix of ingratiation and authenticity, was, like several other parts of the speech, ad-libbed.) He detailed the long history of friendship between the United States and Greece, including fighting as allies in World War II.
And then he said this:
When the junta took over in 1967 here, the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interests – I should say, its obligation – to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War. It is important that we acknowledge that.
With those two sentences — still remembered today in Greece as an apology, though in fact it stopped short of that — the president managed to lower the defenses of the entire Greek population. That made Greek listeners open to hearing the rest of his speech, which was an extended argument for Greece to take the lead in promoting stability and democracy in the region and bridging ethnic and religious divides.
“We can never wholly forget the injustices done to us, nor can we ever escape reminders of the mistakes we, ourselves, have made,” Clinton said, his words applicable to both his own country and his audience’s. “But it is possible to be shaped by history without being a prisoner to it.”
The president commended the moves towards peace between Greece and Turkey, conceding that they had been “in many ways, harder for Greece than for Turkey.” He spoke without apology about NATO’s action against the Milosevic regime but also of his hope for reconciliation: “The people of Serbia have a rich and noble history, a deep love of freedom, and a rightful place in the table of European unity… [They] deserve better than to be suffering under the last living relic of Europe’s dictatorial past.” He praised the willingness of the Greek government to bring aid to the civilians in Kosovo “regardless of their ethnic backgrounds while the fighting raged,” and the enormous sums of government aid and private direct foreign investment Greece was providing to the South Balkans.
The speech was an enormous success, hailed by pundits who had only recently condemned Clinton. “The impact, I hope, is that people in our country too will realize that it’s good to look back on our own history and recognize our errors,” a leading Greek think-tank scholar, Ted Couloumbis, told the Los Angeles Times. “It takes the capacity to be self-critical to begin settling our own problems with our adversaries.”
A month later, the Greek government dropped its veto of Turkey’s EU candidacy — a risky move domestically but one made less politically painful by Clinton’s speech. Turkey eventually changed its constitution. And with the direct and vital involvement of Greek diplomats, anti-Milosevic forces in Serbia prevailed and the dictator himself was brought to justice.
When Air Force One took off later on the day of Clinton’s speech, I stayed behind to visit — and decompress — with my Greek family in Kallithea. Before returning to the States, I went with two of my cousins, Poupa and Yianna, to Monastiraki to buy souvenirs. Not finding any I liked, we drifted over to the street downtown where the riots had occurred. On the sidewalk outside the burned-out banks and shops I noticed shiny pieces of white stone. Poupa, an architect, explained that the stone was marble from nearby Mount Penteli, the same material the Parthenon is made of. Slabs of the marble had been used as facing for the stores. The protesters had pried off the slabs, smashed them and hurled the pieces into the windows. Then Yianna, a graphic designer, had an idea: why don’t you take some of those pieces back as souvenirs? We loaded some in a plastic grocery bag. Back in DC, I took them to a trophy shop, had little plaques put on them that said “Athens, Greece, November 19-20,” and handed them out to White House colleagues, including to President Clinton. Presidents get thousands of gifts a year, nearly all of which quickly get warehoused. But the president kept that little marble memento on his Oval Office desk for the remainder of his term.
Much has changed in the 17 years since Clinton’s speech. The challenges Greece and the United States face are different than they were then and those challenges are, in part, the result of horrible mistakes each country made in the intervening years. What makes Clinton’s 1999 speech special, and still relevant today, is his argument for the virtues of reconciliation and openness. The world is strengthened when nations are honest about their own past errors and accepting of each other’s needs, viewpoints and influences. These virtues are under assault right now, on both sides of the Atlantic. But they are being magnificently upheld in Greece, with its generous treatment of refugees.
As President Obama and his speechwriters labor over the final text of the speech he will deliver tomorrow, there is one passage from President Clinton’s 1999 speech that I hope they steal:
“Another great civic virtue has its roots here in Athens – openness to the cultural differences among us that make life more interesting. In Thucydides account of his famous funeral oration, Pericles declares, ‘We lay Athens open to all and at no time evict or keep the stranger away.’ Two-and-a-half thousand years later, Greece is still open to the world and we pray that everywhere in the world someday everyone will say, ‘We do not keep the stranger away.’”
A version of this story ran in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini.