We have all been watching the dramatic and historic developments occurring throughout the Middle East and northern Africa in recent weeks. Many of us were concerned if this unrest could spill over into the fragile southeastern Mediterranean region and adversely affect Greece and Cyprus. Thankfully, this has not happened. In the face of this massive political unrest in the region, Greece and Cyprus have once again proven their immeasurable values as allies in support of U.S. interests in the region.
As was the case during the Israel-Lebanon conflict in July 2006, Cyprus was utilized as a safe haven for evacuation of Americans and other foreign nationalsthis time from Egypt. In addition, Athens was identified as a safe haven location for American citizens during the crisis in Egypt and proved capable of evacuating its own citizens from Egypt.
With respect to the revolt in Libya, Greece is aiding with the evacuation of Egyptians stranded at the Tunisian-Libyan border and has helped more than 13,000 Chinese nationals evacuate to Crete. Of significance to the United States, the Associated Press reported on March 3 that approximately 400 U.S. Marines arrived at the naval base at Souda Bay, Crete. They were joined the following day by two U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce. Together, the two ships carry 4,000 personnel, including 1,300 Marines. According to Greek news sources, the USS Kearsage is expected to lead the naval forces in case of military operations against Libya.
Souda Bay naval base spokesman Paul Farley said they have been deployed “as part of contingency planning to provide the president [Barack Obama] flexibility on full range of option regarding Libya.”
Of course this is not the first time that Greece has played an important role for U.S. strategic interests in the region. This is only an extension of her immense contributions to the western alliance and U.S. interests over the many years of close cooperation. Greece contributes to the alliance because she takes her responsibilities as a member very seriously and does not attempt to leverage her cooperation for personal gain. That can’t be said for all members. With its close cultural, political and economic ties to the Mediterranean countries, Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East, Greece is an ideal strategic partner for the U.S. with regard to diplomatic relations with countries from these regions.
Greece is of vital importance because, in addition to its geographic location, it is home to the most important naval base in the Mediterranean Sea, the aforementioned Souda Bay, Crete. As a Greek Defense ministry official told the AP, the naval base has supplied U.S. and NATO forces in the region since 1990. Hence, there are thousands of visits by U.S and NATO military ships and planes to Souda Bay and its adjacent air base annually. The base has proven to be vital for the United States in the delivery of troops, cargo, and supplies to Afghanistan. And now, it could prove its value again if the U.S. needs to launch military operations against Libya.
U.S government officials have also acknowledged Greece’s contributions as a NATO ally. On March 19, 2009 at a rollout ceremony to unveil the delivery to the Greek Air Force of the “F-16 Peace Xenia IV” at Fort Worth, Texas, Bruce S. Lemkin, deputy under secretary of the Air Force, stated:
“From World War II and the Cold War through today, Greece had remained a stalwart NATO ally and friend. [Since 9/11] Greece [has] provided strong political support, the use of Greek airspace, and offered Greek military assets to combat terrorism, including the deployment of a Greek frigate to the Arabian Sea for almost two years...Greece has been resolute in its support of operations in the struggles against terrorism and extremism, through the vitally important use of Souda Bay Air Field as a landing base, unrestricted over flights, and providing a continuous rotation of personnel to Afghanistan since 2002.”
On March 9, 2010, during a White House event honoring Greek Independence Day, President Obama said:
“…let me acknowledge Greece’s efforts to extend the security and stability in our time…And let me commend Greece, our close NATO ally, for standing up for the security and opportunity of people around the worldfrom the Balkans to Afghanistan, where Greek service members are helping to give people who have know[n] too much war the chance to live in peace and security.”
Moreover, Greece is a top contributor to the defense efforts of NATO. Greece’s expenditures within NATO are by percentage second to only the United States. In sum, Greece spends an estimated 3% of its GDP on defense. This is largely due to the fact its neighbor, Turkey, continues to threaten Greece with war (casus belli) and promotes sovereignty claims in the Aegean that are devoid of any legal basis. Greece is also an active participant in peacekeeping and peace-building operations conducted by international organizations, including the UN, NATO, the EU, and OSCE. Furthermore, although Greece is in the grips of a tough economic crisis, it has only reduced its defense expenditures slightly, which underscores its commitment to the NATO alliance. Greece has also reached out to Israel to further elevate that relationship within the context of stronger economic and defense ties.
For all this and so much more, this makes Greece a truly front line state for the projection of U.S. interests in the region. Paramount to this is the fact that Greece is a western oriented and democratic state that has political stability. That cannot be said of every country in the region.
Therefore, it becomes incumbent on the United States to continue to cultivate good relations with Greece and to support Greece in its desire to seek peace and stability within its region. The same also applies to Cyprusthe first EU nation to sign the U.S.’ Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).
Both Greece and Cyprus share the U.S.’s core values of freedom, democracy and adherence to the rule of law. They are both members of the EU. They are both Western-oriented countries and its vital to U.S. interests that they remain so.
The American Hellenic Institute will more fully examine Greece’s importance as a frontline state when it will sponsor a seminar in Washington, DC on May 3, 2011 titled, “Greece’s Strategic Importance to the United States.