For the traditional White House celebration of Greek Independence Day (March 25), everything has always been beautiful, regardless of which party currently holds the White House. It has always been one of the White House’s key ethnic community outreach activities (only a few are held there) thanks to the influence of the Hellenic (Greek and Greek Cypriot) American community. The focus is primarily that same community, led by Archbishop Demetrios, as well as key Washington political players representing Hellenic interests. In transition years such as this one, the White House had relatively little time to get itself organized for the event, which comes barely two months after President Trump’s inauguration, and it follows closely on the heels of last week’s White House celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Still, they pulled it off like clockwork.
The White House event pulls them in, as always
The annual White House celebration of Greek Independence Day invariably attracts Greek leaders in addition to the Greek-American community it is designed for. In the old days we saw a rare drop-in by a high-level visitor who was around the American capital for other business, but in the last decade the early spring time frame is specifically targeted by ambitious Greek politicians as the entry point to the White House event and of course those all-important photo ops somewhere near an American President. This is all cleverly piggybacked on the annual Greek Independence Day parade in New York where Greek ministers invariably show up as high-level “grand marshals” for that spectacle. In some years the White House event is scheduled a few days after the actual holiday and in these cases the Greek Finance Ministry delegations coming for the annual IMF Spring Meetings mysteriously show up, as did then-Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis in 2015, who shook hands with former President Obama across a rope line, but then claimed he had a private session.
President Trump’s remarks at the ceremony were full of complements for the Greek spirit, Greek history and his key staffers of Greek origin, but largely focused on the role that Greek-Americans, including his friends, have played in the development of the United States. He did refer to Greece’s dark and difficult years under outside rule, thankfully, but there was no hint of any intention on his part to engage in any of Greece’s current disputes within the region or Eurozone. Rumors have been circulated in recent days by the Greek side that a White House visit by Greek PM Alexis Tsipras later in 2017 is under consideration, but again, there was not even the slightest hint from Trump that the White House is interested. The annual White House Proclamation of March 25th as a “National Day of Celebration,” which Trump signed at the event, stressed Greece’s importance as an ally and expressed hope for improved defense cooperation but did not mention Greece’s current economic situation. The Secretary of State issued as well on March 24 the traditional proclamation honoring Greece’s independence Day, but this year the operative phrase was “Greece will have the continued support of the United States as it makes necessary reforms and works to emerge from economic challenges.” Nobody in Greece’s ruling Syriza party, steadily slipping in the polls, would take much comfort in that austere formulation.
Defense Minister Kammenos calls on the Pentagon
Using the March 25 celebrations as the entry point to visit Washington, Defense Minister Kammenos got his meeting with Defense Secretary James Mattis earlier on March 24th. The bilateral defense relationship is currently excellent and has largely withstood the test of time, but clearly both sides considered a meeting worthwhile in view of the continuing instability in the region. Mattis accepted Kammenos’ invitation to visit Greece, and talks on a range of issues including Aegean and regional stability went smoothly with few exciting announcements from the Greek side at the end of the session other than that it was “a new day in bilateral relations” and that “the Americans understood the economic pressures Greece faces” in maintaining its military commitments Well before the meeting Kammenos had already dropped to the Greek press his extensive laundry list of ideas and requests, including a proposal for a new U.S. base in Greece, a renegotiated and upgraded Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement that could be renewed for a multi-year basis and not just annually, a request to get prices and delivery terms for the new American F-35 fighter that the Turks are also planning to procure, along with a polite request for a White House invitation for Greek PM Tsipras as well as help with the IMF and the blocked Second Review of the Greek bailout program. Kammenos claims he pressed some of these points as well with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, himself of Hellenic origin, at a Hellenic community organization dinner on March 23, so Kammenos is now well-positioned to take political credit if any of these things begin to take shape. We will see.