Opinion: Beware of Greeks buying ships

NEW YORK — In the final moments of Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Cold War farce "Dr. Strangelove," the American president and his military advisors are evacuating the war room, having bumbled with the Soviet Union into a full exchange of nuclear weapons that will destroy most life on earth. As they head to their subterranean bunker, the hawkish Gen. Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) has a brainstorm about the world survivors will emerge into a century later when the fallout dissipates.

“I think we should look at this from the military point of view,” he says. “I mean, supposing the Russkies stash away some big bomb, see. When they come out in a hundred years they could take over!

Something similar appears to have happened in Greece with regard to its military budget. In spite of outward appearances that its age-old disputes with Turkey were on the mend, Greece apparently hid €8.7 billion in military spending between 1997 and 2003. This may not sound like Armageddon. But now, in part because of this kind of accounting, the European Union is facing the gravest financial crisis in its long history.

Ancient feuds and military aid

Following the 1974 Turkish-Greek crisis over Cyprus — a dispute which remains unresolved to this day — the U.S. Congress instituted a special 7:10 ratio with regard to military aid to Greece and Turkey. At the time, both countries were ruled by military juntas, and the Soviet watched with glee as the nations which comprised NATO’s southern flank lunged at each other’s throats.

Crisis after crisis repeatedly brought the two to the brink of war – over Cyprus in the 1970s, a Turkish plan to drill for oil in the Aegean in the 1980s, and over disputed Aegean islands about every four to five years.

For these reasons, well into the 1990s the U.S. Congress insisted on maintaining the relative balance of power, ensured that for every $10 of aid that went to Turkey, $7 went to Greece.
Starting in the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration began arguing against this formula, citing Turkey’s much higher strategic value and downplaying the risks of an actual shooting war between two NATO allies. Congress refused to budget, citing repeated dog-fighting incidents between Greek and Turkish warplanes.

Ultimately, however, the 1991 Gulf War changed the game. With the Cold War newly over, the Greeks in line to join the (then)-European Community, Turkey’s strategic location and influence in many of the newly independent Soviet states prompted the U.S. to open the taps. The 7:10 ratio went by the wayside with little fanfare — except, apparently, in Greece.

Improving relations, dwindling clout

The end of the Cold War vastly diminished Washington’s interest in this regional dispute, and while Turkey’s star rose, Greece’s own once-powerful lobby in Washington lost its strategic argument and became just another advocate for the interests of a significant American immigrant group.

Perhaps not coincidentally, episodes of Greek-Turkish skirmishing also dwindled following the end of the Cold War. Greece’s long quest to join the eurozone — denied in 1999 — may also have played a role in moderating its behavior.

Additionally, the massive Turkish earthquake of 1999 appeared to mark a genuine turning point in Greek-Turkish relations as Athens sent thousands of rescue workers to help and Greeks dug into their pockets to donate money for their neighbor’s reconstruction.

Certainly, many things did change for the better. Greece and Turkey have held real talks over Cyprus, though agreement remains difficult.

Both countries have made concessions toward minorities – Greece has a sizeable Turkish population in the Thrace region, a legacy of Ottoman control, who have been subject to discrimination; Turkey contains a dwindling Greek population — perhaps 2,500 or so — even after decades of repressive policies aimed at forcing them to emigrate.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the Greeks have become among the most vocal supporters of Turkey’s EU membership bid.

Enter Dr. Strangelovolopolous

But no one, it seems, told Greece’s military men. Greece for years refused to open its books to the EU’s statistical unit, Eurostat, on the topic of defense spending, insisting the numbers were confidential.

As it turns out the Greek military was engaging in a major modernization prompted by fears of the U.S. largesse directed at Turkey since the early 1990s, and Turkey’s own exponentially higher GDP and population growth rates.

The Eurostat audit which uncovered the “underreporting” of Greece’s military spending in 2004 got very little press at the time. Certainly, the EU made little of it, something German and French taxpayers are coming to regret.

So it appears Greek defense spending bucked the downward trend of the 1990s as Athens ordered up a new class of warships (Standard-class frigates from Britain), hovercraft and patrol boats (from Russia and Ukraine), and most recently, high-performance jet fighters (late model F-16s from the U.S.).

Until the financial crisis, plans to hold a competition for a next generation fighter — probably between the Eurofighter, the American built F/A-18 and F-35, and Sweden’s JAS-39 Grippen — were in high gear. (Russian interests had been promoting Sukhoi’s latest offerings, as well).
To say the least, such military luxuries appear somewhat beyond Greek means at the moment. Greeks should look to NATO, the EU and the United States to step up efforts mediate an end to the Aegean disputes.

Most of all, now that the jig is up on their creative accounting, they should think very seriously about the relationship they want with their neighbor. Turkey, of late, has been mentioned as a possible addition to the “BRICs” — Brazil, Russia, India and China — nations for whom the 21st century appears to hold great promise. Greece, on the other hand, looks more and more the way the old Ottoman Empire did at the start of the 20th century: the sick man of Europe.