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Pompeo highlights warmer ties with Greece amid regional tensions with Turkey

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, second from left, his wife, Susan, left, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, right, visit the archeological site of Aptera, on the Greek island of Crete, on Sept. 29.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, second from left, his wife, Susan, left, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, right, visit the archeological site of Aptera, on the Greek island of Crete, on Sept. 29. (Aris Messinis/Pool/AP)

CRETE, Greece — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fist-bumped his way around the Mediterranean island of Crete on Tuesday during a visit showcasing how the United States increasingly views Greece as a bastion of economic and military cooperation in a turbulent region.

After spending the night at the family home of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Pompeo toured a Greek air base that houses a U.S. naval support group. Before leaving, he appeared with the Greek leader inside a hangar with an F-16 fighter jet parked on the runway.

Pompeo hailed Greece as a “pillar for stability and prosperity” and said the country had become one of the strongest U.S. military partners in all of Europe. He announced that a new expeditionary sea base, the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, will be based in Crete.

“It’s symbolic of a defense partnership that will continue to expand and to grow,” Mitsotakis said of the ship coming to Crete.

Pompeo’s visit comes amid rising tensions between Greece and Turkey, which have been locked in a dispute over which country has rights to find and exploit energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey dispatched a research vessel, accompanied by warships, to an area where Greece claims exclusive rights. Then Greece sent its own military ships to the area.

Pompeo has said he is “deeply concerned” about Turkey’s actions. U.S. officials have sounded hopeful that tensions are easing after Greece and Turkey, both member states of NATO, agreed to start talks on the issue.

Standing before Pompeo, Mitsotakis blamed the strains on “Turkey’s aggressiveness with provocative actions outside the realm of international law, with an unnecessarily extreme rhetoric, which dangerously escalates tensions, as well as the manipulative tactics [that] often failed to corroborate the honesty of its intentions.”

Mitsotakis, a Harvard- and Stanford-educated financial analyst, extolled a vision of U.S. and Greek aircraft patrolling the skies together as “guarantors of stability.” And he said Greece is ready for further U.S. investments.

“We drew the conclusion that, as our friends say, the sky’s the limit regarding what we can achieve together,” Mitsotakis told Greek and American reporters who were given no opportunity to ask questions.

A senior State Department official will head to Turkey this weekend to gauge the country’s reaction to the administration’s embrace of Greece. Another senior official said Greece’s experience with economic collapse, a loss of faith in government and the hope inherent in the new government represents the resilience of democracy in the world.

“There’s a sense among Greeks that in fact their experience demonstrates the importance of all of us having faith in these democratic institutions and democratic practices,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be frank.

The warm words from Mitsotakis and Pompeo reflected a striking turnaround in U.S.-Greek relations, following decades of anti-American animosity. The sentiment initially stemmed from U.S. support for a military junta that ran Greece from 1967 to 1974, and later was fed by popular anger over the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo.

When President Bill Clinton visited Greece in 1999, the trip was cut in half to one day after the Greek government said it could not provide adequate security for two full days.

But now Greece is pulling itself out of a deep economic pit amid rising tensions with Turkey over gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean and clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Greece’s economy shrank by 25 percent, and more than 500,000 of the population of 10 million people, many young and well-educated, have fled the country for better jobs in the past. Now, the government aims to lure them back home.

Pompeo is on the first leg of a five-day trip that also will take him to Italy, the Vatican and Croatia. He has resumed traveling frequently again after a prolonged hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, he has visited battleground states of Texas and Wisconsin, and plans to speak this weekend at a conservative Christian fundraiser in Florida. Democratic critics say Pompeo’s trips are blurring the lines between his official, apolitical duties and his support for President Trump in a tight election.

His attire has taken on a new accessory overseas. So far he has not been seen in public in Greece without wearing a stars-and-stripes mask, except for a brief period when he took it off to talk to reporters at the air base in Crete. He has also eschewed handshakes for elbow and fist bumps.

In what State Department officials said was coincidental timing, Pompeo boarded a Greek frigate, the HS Salamis, named after a village where Athenian ships defeated the Persian navy in a battle in 480 B.C., 2500 years ago. Persia is the historical name of what is today the Islamic Republic of Iran, a frequent target of some of Pompeo’s most barbed criticism.

Pompeo ended his visit to Greece with his wife, Susan, joining him on a tour of the ruins of Aptera, once a powerful city state overlooking two ports in Crete. So Pompeo’s last official stop was to a place representing restraint with a nemesis. According to historical displays in a room the Pompeos did not visit, Aptera had its own foreign policy and did not join Athens in going to war with Persia.