US Senator Bob Menendez is one of Greece and Cyprus’ greatest supporters. As head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he exerts considerable power and influence in the foreign policy arena.
We met him shortly after his visit to the Greek Defense Ministry, where he was informed about a series of Turkish overflights that were taking place in real time over Greek islands. Menendez believes the Biden administration is unwilling to enter into a “transactional” relationship with Turkey and used strong language against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The senator believes that the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement between Greece and the United States will be signed within the next two months and does not rule out the possibility that Greece will receive used but advanced military equipment. He described the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense systems by Turkey as “an enormous miscalculation” on Erdogan’s part because he thought he could avoid the consequences.
If Greek and Turkish Cypriots could ultimately be in a negotiation for the future of a united Cyprus, there would be an agreement.
Menendez also commented on developments in Afghanistan, noting that no one expected the Afghan army to collapse as quickly as it did given the huge American investments made toward its modernization. Finally, he also speaks on the “incredible competition” between the US and China.
I understand you were at the Greek Defense Ministry when you were informed of Turkish overflights over certain Greek islands. Is that the case?
Yes, the minister was talking about Turkey in general, as it relates to the challenges that the Hellenic Republic has with its neighbor. And he said, even today there are overflights over some of our islands, which is a constant challenge. And it is another dimension of Turkey’s violation of, not only Greek sovereign airspace, but of international engagement and international law, and this is one of the many issues that concerns us about Turkey.
Do you see any difference between the Joe Biden and Donald Trump administrations vis-a-vis the Eastern Mediterranean?
I think that the Trump administration was extremely transactional in a way that went above and beyond anything that I’ve seen in 30 years. I think the Biden administration is committed to a core set of values, values that the president has developed over this time. And in that respect, the Eastern Mediterranean is in a stronger position because when you share our values, we cherish you as an ally. When you don’t share our values, there’s trouble. And, so, I think that what it will be, is a strengthening of that relationship, a strengthening of the 3+1 partnership [Greece, Israel, Cyprus plus the US] that we have. And as I pursue the latest piece of legislation that has already passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – the US-Greece Defense and Interparliamentary Partnership Act – I think it’ll be the next chapter of that relationship.
How do you see the defense relationship between Greece and the US developing? An agreement is supposed to be signed in a couple of months.
My hope and expectation is that by mid-October there will be a new agreement, an agreement that will build upon and enlarge our already existing defense cooperation, one that I think is to the benefit of both of our countries that creates greater security and a security architecture in which Greece plays a pivotal role, that builds upon the East Med strategy that we enacted into law, and Greece as a strong NATO ally. Of course, we are very grateful for Greece hosting us at Souda Bay, but we are building upon that; Alexandroupoli is a new dimension of that. I think the [military] exercises that are going on between us in the 3+1 context are deeper than ever before, more extensive than ever before. So, I think we’re going to be building one in which Greece will play a critical role for peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and beyond.
There was some talk about Greece getting some advanced surplus equipment from the US as part of this agreement. Do you see that happening?
It could very well happen. I mean, those are some of the elements of the final negotiation. We, the United States, are also in contention on the frigates that Greece is seeking. I think how we deal with the intermediate question of that is going to be very important and I look forward to going back to Washington to have consultations with State and Defense on that issue. I hope we can achieve it.
During the Trump administration, there was some uncertainly about how the US would react if something happened with Turkey in the Aegean, or something happened with Cyprus. Now with the Biden administration, do you think we should be more assured about what the US reaction would be? If the Greek prime minister calls in the middle of the night?
I think the answer is yes and, going back to my answer to your previous question – what’s the difference between the two administrations the past and the present as it relates to the East Med – I think that the importance of the defense relationship we are building with Greece, the more and more US investment coming to Greece from the private sector, all those create deepening ties and interests. So, I think President Biden had a very frank and blunt conversation with President Erdogan. Look, we all aspire to a Turkey as the bridge between East and West, as the strong NATO ally committed to the same principles of democracy, human rights, rule of law and a secular nation. But that aspiration is not Turkey under Erdogan. That’s the reality. And so, we recently held a country specific hearing on Turkey before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because I am deeply concerned about Turkey and its role, not only in the Eastern Mediterranean, vis-a-vis its neighbor the Hellenic Republic, but also in Libya and Syria, in Nagorno-Karabakh and their assistance to the Azerbaijanis and elsewhere. Their engagement has been contrary to the type of ally that we would expect and in many respects contrary to US national interests.
But do you think this will change if Erdogan goes?
One could hope so. Of course, as with any country, if there is new leadership at some point in time, we will judge it by what they do, not by what they say. And so, I will say, for my own personal view, it can’t get worse than President Erdogan. You know we say that there are more of your fellow journalists and lawyers in jail in Turkey than in any other part of the world. When we think of some of the terrible parts of the world, that’s a hell of a statement. So, the S-400 [was], of course, the breaking point. I think Erdogan made an enormous miscalculation there. I think he thought he could do it and get away with it. And the law I helped write, CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), is very clear about that. And even some of the strongest supporters of Turkey that I saw at the Senate turned on Turkey dramatically, soured over it, especially over Erdogan. So, I think it certainly would be hopeful that if there was a new leadership in Turkey, that it would hopefully fulfill the aspirations we all have.
As you know, Erdogan is talking about a two-state solution for Cyprus and has done what he’s done with Varosha. What is the US reaction going to be? And is there any chance there will be a change of US policy in terms of the two-state solution?
No. We believe in what we have always been an advocate of and which, more importantly, the Cypriot government has been an advocate of, which is one nation, a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation, in which the rights of all of the north and south are observed, in which people can have peace and prosperity. It is a vision that I personally believe and have always believed that if Greek and Turkish Cypriots could ultimately be in a negotiation for the future of a united Cyprus, there would be an agreement. But of course, again here Erdogan plays a nefarious role between the settlers they have settled from Anatolia, the continuing occupation and the negative engagement of not letting Turkish Cypriots find their own pathway forward. And, of course, the most recent provocative actions as it relates to a suggestion of a two-state solution and Varosha, as such actions would be in violation of the UN resolutions.
What’s your reaction to the events in Kabul in the last few days?
Well, my heart goes out to the American service members who lost their lives, to their families, to all of the Afghans who have lost their lives as they were trying to seek freedom. And as I have said here, I appreciate the support and solidarity that the Greek government has expressed at all levels. And as I have said, we remember our friends in moments like this and our allies, and we remember our enemies as well. In due time, at a time of our choosing, we will punish those who committed this horrific act. We will also continue to commit to our mission of getting everybody we committed to getting out, out one way or another. That is our obligation.
As it relates to the decision, I guess in some respects, you have a look at President Biden’s decision and say, well, if the Afghans are not willing after 20 years, so much blood of Americans and our allies and billions of dollars to fight for your own country, I can’t fight for you forever. So only those who are willing to fight for their own country can achieve liberty. Pericles tells us that: those who seek liberty and are willing and have the courage to fight for it have liberty. So, let’s have the courage to fight for it. Unfortunately, what we hoped and what we had built in the Afghan military and government didn’t materialize. So, our mission now is to do everything we can to get those who supported us out, and then we look forward to what is in the future. The future will depend upon what the Taliban do.
There’s a lot of uncertainty here in Europe about the US commitment to its allies. There’s been a blow to its credibility. Do you think that’s temporary, or something that is going to last?
I would say 20 years of commitment to Afghanistan is a pretty good commitment. It was more the implementation of the decision than the decision itself that harmed US credibility.
The implementation of the decision, yes. No one in NATO, no one in the United States believed that the Taliban would achieve such success with such lightning speed, because every calculation was, and every intelligence estimate was, both by NATO and the United States, that the armed forces of Afghanistan could sustain the fight – if not in the countryside where the Taliban are stronger, certainly in the center of the country and around Kabul. That obviously was not the assessment. So, at the end of the day, I would just simply say, when people say they are concerned about commitment, 20 years, billions of dollars, thousands of American lives, is a pretty good commitment to a cause. But if you’re not willing to fight for your own country, we cannot fight for you forever. And I think maybe it’s a very clear statement to others in the world. You have to be willing to stand up for yourself. We can join you in standing up for yourself, but you must have the courage to fight for your own liberty. And you have to clean up your own house as it relates to the corruption that was going on in Afghanistan. That never gave the Afghan people, and evidently not the Afghan military, a sense that they were fighting for a country. Maybe they felt they had a job, and they were getting paid for their job. That’s not the same as saying you’re fighting for your country.
Lastly, is that a sign of weakness that will tempt your biggest competitors, such as the Chinese?
Listen, we are in an incredible competition with the Chinese. It is a competition not between two countries, but between two visions of what type of world we want to live in. The one vision is the one that’s shared by Greece and the United States. It is a commitment to democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, open economies and the opportunity for every citizen to realize their personal hopes dreams and aspirations. The other one is autocratic – one that in the 21st century has concentration camps, that ultimately uses technology not to liberate its people but to enslave it and that believes that ‘might makes right.’ That’s a far different vision.
In this inflection point, I think in global history, the 30 years that I’ve been involved in foreign policy, we need to make sure that that first vision, the vision shared by Greece and the United States, is the one that is realized, for ourselves and for the world. And so, I think that the Chinese will do whatever they can. They’ve already been provocative, before Afghanistan. We see what they’ve done in Hong Kong, we see the threats they’ve made to Taiwan, see the coercive practices and debt traps they create for poor countries. So this is where we have to unite together in many different dimensions. We have to confront China for its violation of international law, the Law of the Sea in the South China Sea.
We also compete with China, and that means we collectively have to come together. When we join the economies of the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia and others, we can ultimately counterweight the economic power of China.