The Trump administration is pumping up U.S. military and diplomatic ties with Greece, an unsubtle warning to neighboring Turkey, which is taking on what U.S. officials see as a more combative role in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.
It is tricky diplomatic territory: Greece and Turkey, while historical rivals, are U.S. allies in the NATO military alliance, and both serve as strategic gateways to areas vital to U.S. interests.
But Turkey has been criticized by the Trump administration for its overtures to Iran and repression of religious minorities and political dissidents.
Regional tensions escalated in recent weeks as Athens accused Ankara of impinging on its territorial waters in the Mediterranean Sea, which have hydrocarbons and other energy resources. The two countries positioned warships in the area.
The U.S. has not publicly taken sides in the dispute but has boosted support for Greece.
In a visible sign of that backing, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday visited the U.S. Naval Support Activity base at Souda Bay on the Greek island of Crete.
“The relationship between our two countries is at an all-time high and getting stronger,” Pompeo said from a hangar, with uniformed Greek naval officers in the audience.
He described Greece as a “pillar of stability and prosperity” in a troubled region.
Pompeo was making his second trip to Greece in less than a year. Joint appearances by U.S. and Greek officials were rare until recently, and holding one on the joint yet strictly divided U.S.-Greek military base had a special punch.
Pompeo and Mitsotakis, a conservative who was elected last year, stood aboard the Greek naval frigate the H.S. Salamis, named after a decisive battle 2,500 years ago in which Greece defeated a larger force of invading Persians.
Speaking at the hangar, Mitsotakis outlined Greece’s problems with Turkey, while touching on themes Pompeo favors.
He condemned “Turkey’s aggressiveness with provocative actions outside the international law,” calling them “contrary to the values of the Western world.”
Pompeo called for negotiations but also announced the arrival to Souda Bay of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, a naval vessel that can deploy Marines and support naval aviation.
He said Greece can help counter Russian influence, including military action in Libya, the spread of disinformation and the “co-opting” of the Orthodox Church. It was not clear if he was referring to the Russian or the Greek Orthodox Church, but religious freedom has become a focus of Pompeo’s tenure.
The Greeks hope Washington will expand its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean as an alternative to Turkey, which has hosted a major U.S. airbase at Incirlik since the 1950s.
While some U.S. officials have hinted at the possibility, it would be difficult for the U.S. military to extricate itself from Turkey, and several U.S. officials argued that it was not in the cards.
“It’s apples and oranges,” said a senior State Department official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, in keeping with administration protocol. The U.S. military presence at Incirlik is massive and includes nuclear weapons, whose transport would be extremely complicated.
Still, U.S. officials were keen to promote what they called a sharp improvement in American relations with Greece, which was dogged for years by leftist governments, military dictatorships and a simmering anti-U.S. terrorist movement.
The U.S. is “bringing together all the strands of American power and American diplomacy to meet this challenge,” the State Department official said.
President Trump’s views are less clear. U.S. diplomats at times seem to pursue one policy, while Trump promotes another.
At the Republican National Convention in August, for example, Trump spoke favorably about his relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a strongman with despotic tendencies.