Washington — In the wake of recent political changes in Greece, American officials are wondering what to make of their erratic Mediterranean ally. In a surprise move apparently designed to consolidate political power, Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, leader of Greece's socialist party, last week announced plans to withdraw support from conservative President Constantine Caramanlis in elections scheduled for later this year. The change removes from power a leader closely identified with Western interests.
Mr. Caramanlis's official departure yesterday came against a background of increasing anti-American rhetoric, raising questions in the West about Greece's commitment to the NATO alliance.
``Papandreou has ousted the symbol of Greece's ties to the West,'' says one State Department source, ``and he's done so in ways that create the specter of much closer cooperation between PASOK [the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, Greece's ruling party] and the communists. Anyone who cares about Greece is understandably concerned.''
The move is ``likely to be seen by many in the West as one more indication of Papandreou's unreliability,'' says Stephen Larrabee, vice-president of the Institute for East-West Security Studies, in New York. ``For many Greeks, it will end an insurance policy against a strong leftward lurch in Greek politics. Depending on how the elections come out, that could be troubling for the US.''
Experts here say that by replacing Caramanlis, calling for new elections, and sponsoring constitutional changes that would permanently weaken the presidency, Mr. Papandreou's move threatens the period of unprecedented stability in Greek politics that has lasted since military rule ended in 1974.
More important, the mathematics of coming up with a working majority in a new Greek parliament could make it necessary for Papandreou to form an alliance with one or both of Greece's two communist parties. It is just such an alliance that officials here and in Europe are worried about.
In particular, officials here are concerned that pressure from the Greek left could prompt Papandreou to make good on threats to terminate US base rights in Greece once the current lease expires in 1988. Right now, the United States leases two key naval bases that provide port facilities for the US Sixth Fleet, based in the Mediterranean, plus two air bases that are the jumping-off points for reconnaissance missions over the Middle East and the Soviet bloc.
US officials also express concern over the possibility of Greek withdrawal from NATO, noting that Greece is an essential link in the chain of NATO defenses that extends from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. Officials say withdrawal could force a redeployment of troops already spread thin along the Central European front, and they warn that the move could weaken alliance cohesion.
In addition, there is apprehension here about Greek relations with Turkey, which also anchors NATO's vital southern flank and which the Athens government has long considered an adversary, because of divisions over Cyprus and over contested islands and air space in the Aegean Sea. The Greek government recently announced a reorientation in its defense doctrine, suggesting that Turkey, and not the Warsaw Pact, is Athens's main enemy. Many here fear the change could presage the eventual redeployment to the Turkish frontier of Greek divisions now directed against Bulgaria. A spokesman for the Greek Embassy in Washington says no Greek troops currently assigned to NATO will be redeployed.
Officials here say there's no clear consensus within the Reagan administration on how to manage relations with America's wayward ally.
The Defense Department is known to favor calling the Papandreou government's bluff. ``The Pentagon is more inclined to say the US should not be pushed around,'' says one NATO expert, ``and to draw a stark picture of the consequences of a falling out.'' One consequence could be second thoughts about US foreign aid to Greece. The administration has requested $500 million in new foreign military assistance for Athens this year.
But State Department officials say the US should not move precipitously, noting that in spite of his strident nationalistic rhetoric, much of it directed against the US, Papandreou has still renegotiated US base rights and cooperated with the US in other areas. Department officials acknowledge that leaning too hard on the Papandreou government during the election could strengthen the forces of the left, harming NATO's long-term interests.
For now, the US is likely to await developments, in particular the outcome of coming elections, scheduled to take place between now and October, while pursuing a policy of what one official describes as ``pressure without ultimatum.'' But administration officials also warn that if the purpose of Papandreou's latest political moves is to, in effect, blackmail the US into tilting against Turkey, the ploy will not be successful.