Washington, Europe try to forestall a lurch by Greece toward neutralism

Traditionally, when Greeks feel the West is being insensitive to their centuries-old role as pacesetters in a shared civilization, they are tempted to turn bitterly against the West in recrimination.

Today that bitterness is bubbling dangerously near the surface once again.

Hence in Washington and the capitals of Western Europe the name of the game is to secure Greece for the West and so forestall a lurch by that country toward neutralism and away from the overall Western security system.

The immediate aim is to head off significant gains in the general election later this year by Andreas Papandreou's opposition Socialists. Even if any such gains fell short of outright victory, they would almost certainly mean a swing by Greece away from its Western ties and toward a NATO-weakening neutralism.

Within Greece, President Constantine Caramanlis is the man first and foremost committed to strengthening his country's political, economic, and military ties with the West. Cooperating with him from outside Greece are:

* The European Community (EC), which Greece formally joined on Jan. 1 of this year.

* NATO, whose military structure Greece rejoined last October after an absence of six years.

* The US, which began negotiations with the Greek government in Athens last week for a revision of the 1953 military bases agreement between the two countries.

The goal of the US-Greek talks is to produce a revised bases agreement which will guarantee continued American access to key facilities in Greece -- without offense to Greek susceptibilities.

Those susceptibilities have been a factor in Greece's relations with the West ever since the Greeks, with Western European help, freed themselves 150 years ago from four centuries of Turkish rule. On the side of the West, a parallel complicating factor over those 150 years has been an understandable feeling of romantic indebtedness to Greeks for their contributions since ancient times to Western civilization.

That indebtedness spans two millennia. It starts with the philosophy and democratic experiment bequeathed to Western thought by the golden age of Pericles in the 5th century B.C. It moves on through the shared Christian heritage beginning with Paul's sermon on Athens' Mars Hill and the earliest Greek texts of the New Testament to the Greeks' commitment to Christianity in more modern times in the face of Muslim pressure from the Ottoman Turks from the 15th century onward.

Those two factors -- Greek susceptibilities and the Western sense of indebtedness -- often impede objective judgment on both sides. Hellenophiles in the West, from the early 19th- century poet Byron in England to the Greek lobby in the US today, can force policy decisions more on the basis of emotion than on that of cool reason. Conversely, there is that Greek tendency toward recrimination against Western "insensitivity."

If Mr. Papandreou were to make sweeping gains in the elections due in Greece later this year, his success would owe something to such a feeling of recrimination. Mr Papandreou's socialists -- know as PASOK from the Greek acronym for their party -- are against Greece's membership in both NATO and the EC.

The main stumbling block to straightforwardly easy relations between Greece and the West (particularly the US) is the existence of Turkey. In cold strategic terms, or as a piece of real estate, Turkey is more important to the West than is Greece. That was already the situation over 150 years ago when the love affair began between public opinion in the West and modern Greece. In those days, as today, Turkey was seen by hard-liners in the West as a counterweight to Russian expansion.

Since the end of World War II, when President Truman, in the name of the US, took over from Britain the main protective role in both Greece and Turkey against Russian expansion, those responsible for overall Western security have lived with the ticklish task of balancing Greek and Turkish sensitivities in the Eastern Mediterranean. For much of the time, Western defense planners and NATO commanders have been helped by governments in both Greece and Turkey perceiving a common threat from the Soviet Union against which the best protection is US strength operating through NATO.

But the 1974 crisis over Cyprus -- precipitated by the then Greek military government's apparent move to change the status quo in the island, to which Turkey responded with military intervention -- had a damaging effect on overall allied military cooperation in the area.

Greece pulled out of NATO's military structure in protest against NATO's failure to stop Turkey's occupation of part of Cyprus. Mutual trust between the Greek and Turkish governments, cautious at the best of times, was temporarily shattered. And both governments felt let down by the US.

The US government has been patiently trying ever since to put things back together to ensure wholehearted Greek and Turkish cooperation in overall NATO defense plans in the eastern Mediterranean. There has been some progress. The latest step in this painstaking process is the current negotiation in Athens on revising the more than quarter- century-old US-Greek bases agreement.

Greek President Caramanlis wants to preserve the link with the US. But he knows that many Greeks feel the US persists in tilting too much toward Turkey -- and not enough toward Greece. Consequently Mr. Caramanlis knows he must strike a hard bargain with the US.

Next: Greece's tangled internal politics.

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