DURING the first week of June, Constantine Mitsotakis became the first Greek Prime Minister to visit the White House in 26 years. That's a long gap for two countries with such strong cultural and historical ties. But Mr. Mistotakis's visit to the White House may signal the end of a rocky chapter in the US-Greek relationship and the opening of a new era of close cooperation between the two countries. Turbulence marked relations throughout the 70s and 80s. Greeks haven't forgotten then Vice-President Spiro Agnew's toasting of the Greek junta - the same generals responsible for imprisoning thousands of Greeks, including Mitsotakis himself. Nor have the Greeks forgotten (or forgiven) the US failure to intervene with Turkey to prevent the brutal invasion of Cyprus in 1974. When Greek officers stationed on Cyprus overthrew Greek-Cypriot President Makarios, the Turks invaded claiming defense of the Turkish-Cypriot community. Makarios regained power, but the troops remained. Today on Cyprus, 35,000 troops and twice that number of settlers continue to occupy the northern third of the island.
Relations went from bad to worse in the 1980s with the election in Greece of Andreas Papandreou, a charismatic speaker and ardent nationalist who campaigned on a pledge to remove US bases from Greek soil. While he never made good on the promise, his tenure was marked by anti-American rhetoric. Relations sank when, as part of US anti-terrorism policy, the Reagan administration slapped Greece with a travelers' advisory - of no small consequence to a country heavily dependent on tourism.
The April election of Mitsotakis came after a period of political and economic turmoil in Greece. While Papandreou's government collapsed amid charges of corruption, the economy went into a tailspin. After three elections in the space of 10 months, Mitsotakis attained the needed majority to form a government. The prime minister now has set his sights on turning around the economy and mending fences with the US.
In his first months in office, Mitsotakis has begun clearing away the underbrush in relations with the US. His government initiated a new base agreement, extending US base rights for another 8 years. Last month, the prime minister announced Greece's formal recognition of Israel, ending the sad anomaly of Greece being the only EC member to withhold full diplomatic relations. And, finally, Mitsotakis has indicated a willingness to resolve the case of Mohammed Rashid, a terrorist wanted in the US for the 1982 jet bombing that took the life of a teenager and injured 15 others. (Recent history suggests that Mitsotakis will need no US lectures on terrorism. Last year, his own family fell victim when his son-in-law was gunned down in Athens by members of ``November 17,'' the Greek terrorist organization).
A positive working relationship with Greece holds benefits for the US. The easing of East-West tensions means the US can turn its attention to lingering regional conflicts and the new stirring of old ethnic rivalries. Greece's activist diplomacy in the Balkans and its ties to the Arab world give the US channels to areas where its own access is lacking.
But of greatest interest to the US will be how friendly US relations with Greece enhance Washington's ability to work for a settlement of the dispute on Cyprus. A stable government in Greece will allow Mitsotakis to resuscitate and redefine the dialog between Athens and Ankara, begun by Papandreaou and then Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal in 1988. An eventual rapprochement would ease tensions immeasurably and create the atmosphere needed to positively influence the respective communities on Cyprus. The skills and experience that Mitsotakis demonstrated during a turbulent domestic campaign will serve him well in dealing with the Cyprus conflict, the one issue that continues to hamper smoother relations between the US and Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus.
Given the backdrop of a new international arena, the myriad of ties between the two countries and the attention the new Greek Prime Minister has already applied to relations with the US, his meeting last week with President Bush should mark a new era of unparalleled positive relations between our two countries and peoples.