Beyond the hyperbolic headlines

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Over the last several years, July has been a key month for advancing a pro-Hellenic legislative agenda in the United States Congress. Given the August recess, July is extraordinarily busy as both houses of Congress try to pass their versions of two annual “must pass” bills – the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Appropriations Act. In 2018 an NDAA amendment halting F-35 sales to Turkey advanced at this time. In 2019, we saw an NDAA amendment lifting the arms embargo on Cyprus and an appropriations amendment incorporating the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act. In 2021, the US-Greece Defense and Interparliamentary Partnership Act became law via an NDAA amendment. And last year, there was the amendment conditioning F-16 sales to Turkey on Ankara ending its belligerence in the Aegean (although this amendment did not become law, the policy debate it instigated has changed US policy).

With their 2023 NDAA amendment, Congresswoman Grace Meng and the Hellenic Caucus kept this July “tradition” going. Since reporting on the amendment has zeroed in on just one part of it – and has unfortunately misquoted that part – let’s take a closer look at the actual substance of the amendment and why it is so important.

The amendment does not establish any bases; what it does do is require that the secretary of defense and the secretary of state jointly submit to the appropriate Congressional committees a report on the security relationship between the United States and Greece. That report is to have four elements.

1. A description of the basing rights granted to the United States under the updated US-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) signed October 14, 2021.

February 2022 will for the foreseeable future mark the beginning of a new phase in global politics. The MDCA was strategically significant even in the era that preceded Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, but it has become far more important than anyone involved in the signing could have expected in 2021.

The port of Alexandroupoli has garnered plenty of attention – in Congressional hearings, in think-tank analyses, in New York Times stories – but other facilities have also increased in importance.

The members of Congress that sponsored this amendment are aware of recent Congressional delegations to Larissa Air Base and Stefanovikeio, and they have deemed it important that the rest of Congress and the American public are aware of the hard assets Greece is providing.

2. A description of US activities and investment on the bases covered in the MDCA since its enactment. 

Too many analysts provide commentary in the Greek press by saying, “You have to understand the American system,” and then explain it incorrectly. Given the heights the US-Greece bilateral relationship has risen to and its potential to grow even further, the Greek public deserves an actual understanding of the policy making process in the United States.

Under the US Constitution it is Congress – not the president – that wields the “power of the purse.” We are experiencing an unprecedented period of pro-Hellenic legislation, but that should not tempt us to forget what preceded it.

It was not too long ago – the beginning of the Trump presidency to be precise – that proposals were made to cut the amount Greece received under certain defense programs (the International Military Education and Training Program) and there were objections to even nominal amounts to Foreign Military Financing for Greece.

The members of the Hellenic Caucus certainly remember this, and they know the importance of showing their colleagues that the investment the US has made in bases in Greece has already demonstrated a significant rate of return. There may come a time when Congress is asked to appropriate money for investment in facilities in Greece. This reporting requirement will make such an ask easier.

3. An analysis of the potential for additional bases or an expanded US military presence in the Hellenic Republic, particularly on Greek islands.

This is the section of the amendment that garnered the most headlines and has been misinterpreted either through an overabundance of excitement or intentionally.

This section only authorizes an analysis – not a new base. In fact, even if the analysis recommends a new base, this section does not predetermine that such a base will be on a Greek island.

With this request these members of Congress are raising a strategic consideration: Given so many Greek islands that can serve as unsinkable aircraft carriers, is it not prudent to at least consider the options these islands open up for the Western Alliance?

The administration’s concession that Turkey is pursuing an “independent foreign policy” has revealed that Ankara’s reliability is in question in Washington, DC. Preventing Russia’s breakout from the Black Sea may require more of a presence in Greece and in the Aegean.

4. An assessment of the status of the security cooperation mandated by the US-Greece Defense and Interparliamentary Partnership Act of 2021. 

This section is a reminder from Congress to the administration that it has authorized – through the above legislation – an expedited process for F-35 sales and the delivery of excess defense articles to Greece. Congressional leaders are understandably annoyed that the State Department has not moved slowly on finalizing the F-35 sales to Greece, and they are showing it.

There are still months to go in the NDAA process and before such a report is required by law. Given the controversies raised by non-defense-related amendments attached by the right wing of the Republican majority in the House, there is still a chance that the NDAA includes few if any amendments.

But what is clear is that Congress – which played the lead role in getting the US-Greece relationship to the point it is at now – is determined to lead again as the relationship goes to the next level.

Endy Zemenides is the executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC).



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