By: Alan Berlind
The most senior and most important American visitor to Cyprus in half a century, Vice-President Joseph Biden, arrived in the country on May 21. In public statements – and surely in his meetings with Cypriot officials – Biden made absolutely clear the United States’ position concerning the matter of sovereignty and the country’s importance to the United States, both in general terms and with respect to its role as a strategic partner in the future of energy production and distribution. That Biden had by his side a senior U.S. energy official underscored the last point.
In his arrival statement, and to counter charges from some Greek-Cypriot quarters that American policy was less than clear, the Vice-President left no doubt as to the current American position on the four-decade division of the island since the Turkish invasion and occupation of 1974. “The U.S. recognizes only one legitimate government of the Republic of Cyprus, and my visit and meetings throughout the island will not change that. It is my personal position, it’s the position of the United States of America and it’s the position of the entire world, save one country.” The message to that one country, Turkey, could not have been clearer, and the way was opened for a non-controversial visit to the occupied north and talks with the Turkish-Cypriot leadership, with which that legitimate government is for the first time conducting talks aimed at conclusively ending the division.
To keep the record straight and acknowledge the U.S. role in the catastrophe that struck Cyprus, one must recall certain Cold War American policies of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon that needlessly and cruelly plunged the small island into forty years of foreign occupation. To begin, Johnson looked elsewhere in 1967 when an overnight military coup d’état in Greece – launched with the excuse of needing to pre-empt a civilian election of a socialist (i.e., communist) government – put an end to the democracy established more than twenty years earlier when the Americans rescued the country from Nazi invaders. Having done nothing other than ordering a minor, symbolic cut in U.S. military aid to NATO-member Greece, Johnson in 1970 turned the matter, and all other foreign policy matters, over to successor Nixon and the latter’s foreign policy guru and National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger.
Those two inheritors of Johnson’s foreign policy agenda were apparently quite comfortable with a military dictatorship in the birthplace of democracy, witness their instruction to Henry Tasca, the new American Ambassador to Athens. They told him to report back in six months on the Greek colonels’ progress toward restoring civilian rule. Sensing no progress, Tasca could not provide the desired rationale for letting time solve the problem, but his wiser bosses in Washington restored military assistance to its former levels. Four years later, with Nixon beating his way back to California to preclude impeachment, Kissinger posed no obstacle or objection to the Greek colonels’ attempt to overthrow the elected President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, and incorporate his wholly independent country into Greece. That attempt having failed, Kissinger was nevertheless too busy with other things to stand in the way of a Turkish invasion and take-over of some 40% of the island, leaving some 35,000 troops still in place forty years later when Biden set foot in Cyprus last month.
While history cannot, and must not, be denied, President Barack Obama’s decision to send his number two to Cyprus can go a long way toward consigning the ugly and disgraceful past to the books. The potential central role of Cyprus in establishing the Eastern Mediterranean as the key to addressing the energy problems of Western Europe, reducing the latter’s dependence on Russian oil, and eliminating a non-negotiable barrier to Turkish EU membership must be recognized as driving forces behind the American initiative. It also must be acknowledged that the potential roles of Lebanon, Egypt and Israel in the production and movement of liquid natural gas are of key importance, to say nothing of the commercial interests of key American participants. Hard-nosed pursuit of economic and political interests while seeking solutions to broader problems constitutes no crime, and may well produce a political agreement on Cyprus’ future sooner than heretofore anticipated.
It has been reported that following Biden’s meetings with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu, the latter two have agreed to step up the pace of the talks between the two island communities. Just as important, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay has been quoted as saying the following at a press conference in Ankara on the day of Biden’s arrival in Nicosia: “This time the Cyprus negotiations are going efficiently. We see the constructive contributions by the EU and the U.S. as actually helpful.”
Everything seems to be headed in the right direction, but who would know from the apparent failure of the American media to report the Biden visit? Has anyone out there seen something highlighted in the Cypriot and Turkish press and clearly of interest to the United States?