Bill Clinton goes to Athens Nov. 13 to reward the Greek government for not breaking NATO ranks on Kosovo. The administration also hopes to sign a protocol on counterterrorist cooperation aimed at the "November 17" terrorist organization, held responsible for the deaths of four Americans and attacks on many more.
However well-intentioned on the American side, this accord must cope with the fact that Greek authorities do not want to find and prosecute the terrorists. The real question is what our own government is prepared to do when a foreign power consistently fails to combat terrorism targeted at U.S. personnel. Clinton's visit to Athens will be a test.
Greece does not have the world's worst terrorism problem; far from it. But Greece does have the world's worst counterterrorism problem. Since the first murder of a U.S. official 24 years ago, no member of November 17 has been arrested or even officially identified. The terrorists have expanded their tactics from guns to bombs to rockets, but the Greek police and their political masters remain unmoved. With complete impunity terrorists have murdered more than 20 people and attempted to kill hundreds.
I cannot pretend to be objective on this topic. During 1987-90 I was a State Department officer in Athens responsible for terrorism issues. It was a bitterly frustrating experience. Our defense attache -- Navy Capt. William Nordeen, a fine man on the verge of retirement -- was literally blown to pieces. Dozens of our personnel were nearly killed in bus bombings. Many Americans lived with deadly peril on a daily basis. Prominent Greeks were also killed, including a talented young member of Parliament.
Now, 10 years later, the situation is no better and in some respects worse. We spend more taxpayer dollars to protect our embassy staff in Athens than in Beirut or Bogota or Algiers.
The response by Greek police then and now is nothing short of deliberate negligence. The investigation of each attack is pro forma and even counterproductive. For example, a senior police officer on the scene of a lethal shooting once gave the expended shell casing -- vital evidence -- to a friendly reporter as a souvenir. Investigations are effectively shut down after a few days. Political oversight prevents investigators from going "too far." This is not a resource problem. The Ministry of Public Order is large, amply funded and snoops into many aspects of Greek life.
The real problem is one of attitude. Officials from Public Order and the Foreign Ministry many times told me that November 17 is not really an important problem, New York is more dangerous than Athens, and the terrorists will eventually stop their killing. U.S. help is not wanted. Patience is the solution. The problem, in their eyes, is the bad image in America that keeps our tourists (and the dollars they might spend) away from Greece.
Official visitors from Washington, especially congressmen, find it difficult to grasp the seriousness of the problem. They say Greece is a NATO ally and the recipient of a great deal of U.S. assistance. How, then, could Greek authorities be doing nothing to capture the terrorists? The fact remains, after 24 years: Nothing is changed and nothing accomplished except more casualties.
Greek police are often said to be reluctant to pursue November 17 because of its supposed links with figures of the ruling left-wing PASOK party. This is certainly part of the problem. However, several right-wing governments also did nothing. The sad truth is that November 17 enjoys wide popular acceptance in Greece, reflecting deep-seated ethnocentric Balkan prejudices. These terrorists are tolerated not for their veneer of Marxism-Leninism (which nobody takes seriously) but for their rabid anti-U.S., anti-NATO, anti-EU, anti-Turkey, anti-Western nationalism.
For U.S. policy the solution could lie with Congress, if it is willing to apply to Greece some of the sanctions it uses so widely around the world. The bloated U.S. Embassy in Athens should be drastically reduced, and military assistance tightly linked to results on November 17.
Greek officials say privately that they have more influence on Capitol Hill than does the State Department, that the Greek lobby will always protect aid for Athens. If so, is our rhetoric about fighting terrorism as empty as the Greeks'?
The writer, a former State Department and Pentagon official, is a program director at the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington.