President Clinton acknowledged on Saturday the U.S. government's support for the widely despised military junta that ruled Greece more than 25 years ago, but he stopped short of apologizing outright for Washington's letting Cold War concerns obscure a moral obligation to oppose a dictatorship.
The support that the American government gave to the regime of the colonels from 1967 to 1974 has shadowed U.S.-Greek relations ever since and has compounded the difficulty of U.S. efforts to bring Greece into a leadership role in the Balkans that would adhere closely to Western policy.
The president's remarks reflect a readiness he has demonstrated in recent years to acknowledge mistakes--even horrors--in official American conduct, ranging from slavery to Washington's support for the military regime that ruled Guatemala through violence and intimidation for four decades.
During a visit to Africa in 1998, he apologized for the U.S. role in the African slave trade and for America's own history of slavery. Similarly, during a visit to Guatemala last March, he apologized on behalf of the United States for the support that successive administrations gave to the Guatemalan military juntas.
Clinton's acknowledgment of the well-known but behind-the-scenes support for the anti-communist government that held a harsh grip on Greece--and his implication that the support was a mistake--can only add political clout to his efforts to nudge Greece and Turkey toward easing their ancient animosities and, specifically, to resolving differences over Cyprus.
In a speech to business and community leaders as he concluded a 22-hour visit to Greece, the president declared:
"When the junta took over in 1967 here, the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interests--I should say its obligation--to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War.
"It is important that we acknowledge that," he said, gaining a burst of applause.
The president's statement, said Ted Couloumbis, director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, "was a class act--stunning."
"The impact, I hope, is that people in our country too will realize that it's good to look back on our own history and recognize our errors," he said. "It takes the capacity to be self-critical to begin settling our own problems with our adversaries."
During its seven years in power, the junta jailed hundreds of thousands of Greeks for political reasons and forced tens of thousands into exile, including most of the country's civilian political leadership: left, right and center.
According to testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, the junta contributed financially to Richard Nixon's successful 1968 presidential campaign. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who was of Greek descent, angered many Greeks when he visited in 1971, embraced the junta leaders and called them the country's best leaders since Pericles ruled ancient Athens.
Among the Greeks who fell victim to the junta's repression were composer Mikis Theodorakis (best known for the "Zorba the Greek" film score), who was arrested and tortured, and actress Melina Mercouri, who fled to avoid arrest and was stripped of her Greek citizenship.
Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who was 14 at the time, witnessed the arrest of his father, Andreas Papandreou, in 1967. The family went into exile late that year when his father was released and returned only after the junta fell. Andreas Papandreou later served as prime minister.
"Greeks have high esteem for America and its democratic values, so there's always this feeling [about the junta years] of a friendship betrayed," the American-educated foreign minister said in an interview. "What Clinton did . . . that's a bold statement. I hope it will be received as a true desire for reconciliation of the past."
But even as he saluted the complicated U.S.-Greek relationship, Clinton was confronted, at least from a distance, by the popular discord facing any Greek government that moves toward improved relations with the United States--and risks being seen as bending too closely to Washington's agenda in the Balkans, Turkey and Cyprus. Although Greece officially supported the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia last spring, the government faced massive protests among the Greek population, where 90% were found in surveys to oppose the military campaign. Greek Archbishop Christodoulos prayed for his fellow Orthodox Christians in Serbia and denounced the NATO bombers as "pawns of Satan."
The streets of Athens, drenched by a steady downpour, were quiet as Clinton moved about Saturday, the morning after a paroxysm of anti-American violence in which police fired tear gas, demonstrators hurled firebombs, and shop and auto windows were smashed.
In his public remarks, the president largely ignored the unrest, other than to acknowledge the "anger and anguish" in Greece over the Yugoslavia airstrikes and to defend the military operation.
But as he paid homage to the origin in Greece 2,600 years ago of the democratic principles on which the U.S. was established, he said:
"If the people of every country, in the Balkans, for example, had the institutions and habits of democracy, if they too could proudly express and settle their differences peacefully and proudly and democratically, if the fundamental human rights of all those people were respected, there might not have been a war over Bosnia or Kosovo."
Greece, long feeling it has been looked on as a poor cousin when Washington cast its gaze to the more wealthy states of Europe, has nevertheless played a substantial role for decades in U.S. foreign policy--first as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization counterbalance to Soviet influence in the Balkans and now as an example to which Clinton points as a model of democracy and prosperity.
But it was to the often angry, widely distrustful and occasionally violent Greek-Turkish relationship, and the spillover in divided Cyprus, that Clinton devoted himself throughout the six days he spent in Turkey and Greece.
As he nears the final year of his term, the president has focused increasingly on the so-far intractable, ethnic-based disputes that have divided Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, and Turkish and Greek Cypriots.
Clinton made little progress in lobbying the Greeks and Turks for a compromise that would enable Greece to support Turkey's candidacy for European Union membership at a summit in Helsinki, Finland, next month, but U.S. and Greek officials said he improved the climate.
He also got no assurance that Turkey is willing to offer Greece new concessions it seeks on Cyprus and Aegean Sea claims.
"I can't point to anything dramatic to say that the relationship has advanced" during Clinton's visit, said a U.S. official. "But we never saw it as a last chance saloon."
U.S. officials said Clinton told Greek officials that approval of Turkey's candidacy, a first step on a years-long path toward full EU membership, is the best way to ease Greek-Turkish hostility over the long run. The vote by the 15-member EU must be unanimous.
Greek officials said that what Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit had offered, under pressure from U.S. officials, had been minimal: He persuaded the Turkish Cypriot leader to resume talks with his Greek Cypriot counterpart on the future of the divided island.
Turkish officials sound unwilling to make new concessions for EU candidacy.
Clinton went so far in his effort to present an acceptable face to the Greeks that he acquiesced in a plea that he use his influence with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to persuade the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles. The antiquities, sculpture from the Parthenon, were spirited away early in the 19th century by the British archeologist Lord Elgin, who is now widely perceived as a plunderer.
The president meets today with Blair at a conference in Florence, Italy, to which he flew Saturday.
The pitch was made by Greece's minister of culture, Elisavet Papazoi, who accompanied Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, on a tour of the Acropolis on Saturday morning.
"He said he was going to help us for the return of the Parthenon marble," she said. Asked whether she expected him to raise the matter quickly with Blair, she smiled and said, "Yes. Tomorrow."
Times special correspondent Amberin Zaman in Istanbul contributed to this story.