A recent speech by U.S. Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt is causing Greek officials and the media alarm about American policy.
In an address to the 7th Annual Hellenic Air Force Academy Air Power Conferenceon May 15, Pyatt stressed America's strong support for its long-standing alliance with Greece, but he seemed to imply that the State Department would be pressuring Athens and Cyprus to cede to Ankara in its dispute over drilling rights in the Aegean Sea.
U.S. Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt (right) at the 7th Annual Hellenic Air Force Academy Air Power Conference, on May 15, 2019. (Image source: U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Greece)
The first hint that Pyatt -- an appointee of the Obama administration -- was about to say something unpopular among Greeks was in his opening remarks:
"...[O]ne of the reasons I enjoy speaking to military audiences like this is that you always test me with your straight shooting. The fact is, militaries tend to operate with a black-and-white, shoot/no-shoot frankness, whereas us diplomats work in shades of gray."
Given what Pyatt said during the question period that followed the lecture, his "shades of gray" comment took on a more ominous meaning.
When asked by a member of the audience about U.S. policy vis-a-vis Turkish drilling activities in the Aegean Sea, Pyatt responded:
"...[T]he United States has placed a lot of attention on the emerging trilateral relationship between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. This reflects our recognition that the Eastern Mediterranean has reemerged as a zone of great power competition, and in that context our relationship with our three democratic partners is particularly important. That is why Secretary of State Pompeo traveled to Jerusalem this spring in order to participate in the trilateral with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Prime Minister Tsipras. On the question specifically of the Cypriot EEZ and Turkish drilling activities, you saw the very quick and clear reaction of my government through our spokesperson in Washington, DC, and in particular, our emphasis on avoiding provocative and escalatory actions.
"From that perspective... our long-term hope is that energy issues in the Eastern Mediterranean should become a driver of cooperation, a win-win, as opposed to a driver of conflict. It's very important in that regard that President Anastasiadis has explicitly proposed the creation of an escrow account so that any resources from Cypriot drilling activities would be shared equally among the communities.
"I would note also the very strong support of my government for the efforts that the Greek government has made to engage with and develop rules of the road with Turkey. It's very important that Prime Minister Tsipras traveled to Ankara and Istanbul. It's extremely important that Minister Apostolakis and Secretary General Paraskevopoulos at the Foreign Ministry continue to offer and encourage a dialogue between Athens and Ankara on confidence-building measures. At the end of the day, Turkey is a NATO ally. We all seek to ensure that that NATO ally remains anchored in the West, anchored in Euro-Atlantic institutions, and indeed I would argue that among 29 NATO member states, the United States has no ally more closely aligned with us on the importance of keeping Turkey anchored in the West than Greece. So, we have spoken clearly on the escalatory nature of these drilling activities but we also are focused not just on stating our policy but also trying to reframe and redirect these issues in a way that's to everybody's benefit."
Pyatt's answer, which emphasized dialogue with Turkey, was construed by Greek politicians and the press as pressure from the State Department on Greece and Cyprus to cede their sovereign rights and natural-gas resources to Turkey. The phrase: "win-win" -- and the sentence: "At the end of the day, Turkey is a NATO ally" -- triggered Greek fears that U.S. President Donald Trump intends to use Greece as a decoy in order to bring Turkey back in NATO's orbit. These fears have triggered anti-Trump sentiment among Greeks at home, and among millions of Greek-Americans abroad.
This anger was fueled further by former Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis. In an op-ed on June 9 in the newspaper Kathimerini, Simitis wrote:
"It is indicative that the U.S. ambassador in Greece, who was asked about Turkey's challenges in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone, 'noted the need for stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and talked about agreements equally beneficial to the parties involved' – an answer which suggests initiatives that may not be profitable for our country [Greece]... [However]...the risk of incidents with negative consequences will be true if we do not try to find solutions that are not always pleasant, but they guarantee peace in the region. In an effort like that, Greece will have – I believe – the support of the European Union and the United States."
After the negative reactions that Simitis' article elicited, the American embassy's press attaché, Eshel William Murad, claimed in a "letter to the editor" that Simitis had misinterpreted Pyatt's statements. Murad's letter read, in part:
"We read the editorial... by Costas Simitis... with special respect and consideration given the former prime minister's deep knowledge of the topic and the recent, strong US government policy statements on these issues...
"I note here that [the article] does not accurately describe Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt's response to the question at the May 15 Air Power Conference at the Hellenic Air Force Academy, which is the event where certain media misinterpreted his remarks.
"He [Pyatt] never spoke about agreements being equally beneficial. Instead, he said: 'On the question specifically of the Cypriot EEZ and Turkish drilling activities, you saw the very quick and clear reaction of my government through our spokesperson in Washington, DC, and in particular our emphasis on avoiding provocative and escalatory actions. From that perspective, I would note also that our long-term hope – and this is again embodied in our support for the Greece-Israel-Cyprus trilateral – our long-term hope is that energy issues in the Eastern Mediterranean should become a driver of cooperation, a win-win, as opposed to a driver of conflict. It's very important in that regard that [Cyprus] President [Nicos] Anastasiades has explicitly proposed the creation of an escrow account so that any resources from Cypriot drilling activities would be shared equally among the communities.'
"...In fact, the first outlets which misinterpreted the ambassador's remarks were Pronews.gr and Pentapostagma.gr and, we would argue, they did so intentionally given their well-known slant toward Russian positions.
"Unfortunately, the narrative spread, despite other factual coverage, including on Defense-Point.gr and HellasJournal.com.
"I am writing to correct the record so that your readers have the text of what the ambassador said on this topic."
Placing blame on pro-Russian news outlets for what Murad claims is a false narrative appears to be a form of verbal acrobatics, however. Simitis did not need to get his information from obscure websites that he probably never even heard of, let alone encountered.
Furthermore, Simitis is not the only figure, political or otherwise, to have interpreted Pyatt's words as he did. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for instance, is likely to have understood Pyatt's remarks to mean that the U.S. is preparing to impose an "agreement" on Greece that favors Turkey. Such a sense on Erdogan's part would only make him hungrier for hegemony in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
In his speech, Pyatt twice referred to Pompeo as his boss, but the feeling among Greek elites is that the State Department -- or at least its embassy in Greece -- is still operating according to the policies and worldview of Pompeo's predecessor, John Kerry, in particular, and the Obama administration in general. The sense in Greece is that the American embassy in Athens is not conveying Trump's messages in many areas, such as illegal immigration, Islamic terrorism, Iran and U.S. trade disagreements with the Eurozone.
Do Pyatt's recent comments mean that Turkey's claims to Greek and Cypriot drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean can be added to the list?