While the world has focused on the closing days of the U.S. election campaign, in Athens advance teams from the White House and other U.S. Government agencies have been feverishly completing preparations for President Obama’s November 15th Greece visit. For the Americans in Athens it’s basically part of the final planned overseas trip for President Obama, with a specific target back home, but it’s much more than that for their Greek hosts. And let us not forget the impact that announcing the Greece visit in late October may have had on undecided Greek-American voters.
Plainly put, desperation on the debt issue is so deep that Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and his economic team are hanging on every word issued by American authorities in the visit build-up. While the American side sees discussions on economic issues as part of a larger program for the Obama Greece visit, it is clear the Greek side is focusing on only one core issue – getting something useful from the Americans on debt relief, even though Washington actually holds no official Greek debt. Nothing else matters to Athens’ current rulers, which is a shame, as Greece-U.S. bilateral relations have remained excellent throughout the Greek debt crisis with only a few rough spots.
Addressing debt issue is critical to bolster Tsipras, but watch the trip manifest
It seems the Greek side is focused on getting something, anything, that it can use domestically on the debt issue — yes, the very same debt that the Americans don’t hold. Most of all Prime Minister Tsipras, badly sagging in the polls, needs something he can package as a political lifeline from Washington. He wants to be able to inform the Greek people that he singlehandedly convinced President Obama to take the fight for Greek debt relief directly to Angela Merkel, bypassing Brussels, the IMF and the Eurogroup. It will be interesting to see how Obama’s people navigate this minefield, since most of what we have heard so far from American officials this year has put the onus for debt relief back on Greece. The American side has repeatedly said that it was up to Greece to swiftly and fully implement the structural reforms agreed with its creditors in order to open the discussions on meaningful debt relief (inclusion of the word “meaningful” in the American phraseology some time ago was seen a major shift in U.S. policy by Athens). Thus it will be almost impossible to get President Obama to utter the words Tsipras desires except in the context of a hurried response at a press conference. The Americans have been completely in synch with Greece’s creditors on the need for deeper structural reform for most of this year, and that’s just a fact of life the people running Greece need to accept. Another and perhaps the most critical indicator of Obama’s intent will be how many high-level Treasury Department officials accompany him to Athens and Berlin (Secretary Lew has not been confirmed so far). Tsipras basically wants a picture of Obama and Lew meeting with Merkel and Schauble in Berlin saying “relieve Greece’s debt now” or something to that effect. Good luck. We don’t exclude a more balanced formulation, something like “Greece needs breathing space to restore confidence and economic growth, please help where you can.”
Why is Washington scheduling this visit?
Earlier this year, discussion was heard in Washington that President Obama might decide to make a major push for peace in the Middle East after the election, capitalizing on his “Lame Duck” status and able to deflect Congressional opposition to pressing the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem. Somebody clearly decided this strategy was unworkable so the post-election target was adjusted to something slightly more manageable. How the decision to visit Greece was worked in to his program will be revealed in the course of time, hopefully not through WikiLeaks, but it is doubtful that the inclusion of Athens and Berlin in the November trip schedule was based solely on a desire to assert American leadership over Eurozone economic policy decisions. If anything the Greek stop was added because President Obama has been almost everywhere else, Greece is facing increasing pressure from Turkey (which Obama has visited), the continuing refugee crisis for which Washington feels some guilt, and because military-to-military relations are excellent and so is Souda Bay’s harbor and strategic reach.
Here is Greece segment of the official White House trip announcement: The President on November 15 will arrive in Greece, where he will see President Pavlopoulos, meet with Prime Minister Tsipras, and reaffirm our support for ongoing efforts to place the Greek economy on a path to sustainability and renewed prosperity. In the birthplace of democracy, the President will also reaffirm the resilience of democratic values, which have done so much to deliver peace and prosperity to Europe and the wider world. Additionally, the President will make clear our appreciation for the remarkable generosity shown by the Greek Government and people to refugees and migrants.
Obama’s “Legacy Speech” — framed with the Acropolis
Rumors have been circulating for over a week about the Obama team’s intent to have the President make a “Legacy Speech” in Athens framed by the Acropolis. We don’t have details, but since we have only seen that a few high level meetings are scheduled — with the Greek President and Prime Minister — the time for this would certainly be available. This would most likely shift the visit’s focus massively. Instead of Mr. Tsipras using Obama and the U.S. as a political lifeline, it would be Mr. Obama capitalizing on the hugely positive imagery emanating from the founding of the concept of Democracy in ancient Athens. Five years from now, you tell me what will be remembered, the temporary “lifeline to Tsipras” or the “Legacy Speech” in Athens.
What about the other issues?
Most Presidential visits come with a long list of so-called “deliverables.” As I was working on the Greek Desk at the State Department during the 1999 Clinton Greece stop, let me assure you these “deliverables” are normally a critical focus of Presidential visits. Less so at the end of the Obama Administration, it seems, and we have yet to hear a reference to any potential agreements to be signed. So for now the main deliverable is the VISIT. If pressed to put together a list I would say there could be some new aid package for refugees announced, additional transfers of surplus military gear for border patrols, and possibly some kind of bilateral agreement with an economic or science and technology focus. But those are just guesses at this point.
Welcome to Greece….where will President Obama be staying?
Full trip details are being held tightly, we do not yet know where Obama will be overnighting November 15th. The Clinton party hunkered down in the Athens Hilton for its overnight stay in 1999, when relations were much tenser, primarily over the then-fresh Kosovo issue. The long-rumored Obama Lesvos stopover to visit refugee sites is reported to have been dropped from the program, and he may do that kind of visit somewhere closer to Athens. There could also be a visit to Souda Bay, Crete, in the cards as has been rumored, or time for a side-trip to points unknown, before meetings in Germany on November 17th. Stay tuned.