Presidential candidates Biden, Clinton, McCain and Obama address Hellenic issues

U.S. Presidential candidates, Joseph Biden (D-DE), Hillary Clinton (D-NY) John McCain (R-AZ) and Barack Obama (D-IL), spoke to a group of Greek American leaders who participated in the 23rd Annual Cyprus, Hellenic and Orthodox Issues Conference, held Thursday and Friday, May 17-18, in Washington, D.C. The three democratic presidential hopefuls addressed the conferees in person while Senator McCain, who was on the road, greeted them through a telephone hookup. All four discussed issues of particular concern to this 1.3 million strong ethnic constituency and outlined plans for making America a greater nation and the world a safer place.

It was the first time that more than one presidential candidate participated in the same ethnic event prior to party election primaries and caucuses and the first time that the candidates provided in some detail their views on two U.S. foreign policy issues that are of paramount importance to the Greek American community.

Senator Joseph Biden

Joseph Biden who became a U.S. Senator right after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, never though that more than three decades later a part of this Mediterranean island country would still be occupied by Turkish troops. The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee believes that the Cyprus issue is “an anomaly” in today’s Europe.

Sen. Biden: “The only truly unresolved and unremitting injustice that exists in that whole area of the world is Cyprus. It is still there.”

Senator Biden criticized Turkey for more than its policies on Cyprus.

Sen. Biden: “There is no justification whatsoever for the treatment of the Patriarch. None. It is not at all consistent with anything remotely approaching the values adopted by the rest of Europe. It is completely unrelated to what the EU has acknowledged are basic human rights and basic responsibilities relative to the freedom of religion.”

Although he refrained from prescribing a formula for the settlement of the Cyprus issue Senator Biden outlined a general policy towards Turkey that he plans to implement should his bid for the U.S. Presidency be successful.

Sen. Biden: “The U.S. should demand, should make absolutely clear, that the basis of the relationship is impacted upon by how Cyprus is resolved, Turkey disengaging completely, how disputes between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean are settled in the future, how we deal with those false claims relating to access to oil that has now been found essentially in the continental self of Cyprus and how the Patriarch is treated.”

Senator Hillary Clinton

Senator Hillary Clinton reflected on her historic visit to Istanbul at the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarch, when she was First Lady.

Sen. Clinton: “He is an international leader of great significance. The first time I visited him was quite a controversial act. I did two things. In addition to visiting him I made it clear that the position of the United States government and the position that certainly I held personally was that the monasteries should be opened, that the religious freedom, that is given a lip service, should be respected and that the Patriarch and all of his personnel and facilities should be protected.”

The Senator from New York, the State with the largest concentration of Greek Americans, added that she held a session about religious freedom in Istanbul 12 years ago, continued to raise the issue of the Patriarchate on numerous occasions since then and has appealed to President Bush to make this a front burner issue. Senator Clinton attaches great importance to both Greece and Turkey.

Sen. Clinton: “We have the continuing challenge of Iraq and the region and of course Turkey and Greece are intimately involved in what we have to consider as we move forward.”

Senator Clinton criticized the Bush administration for what she described as not following on the progress made by President Bill Clinton’s administration towards the reunification of Cyprus.

Sen. Clinton: “We need to make it very clear that this is an issue that is important to the world, especially to Europe, because they do not want this continuing occupation and the difficulties that flow from it in the midst of Europe. So, you’ve got to have an American presence that is consistent and steadfast and we will do that when I am President.”

How would Senator Clinton make that a part of her foreign policy agenda should she be the people’s choice in both the primaries that will ultimately produce the presidential candidate of her party and in the subsequent presidential election in November 2008?

Sen. Clinton: “I think that there are a lot of ways that we need to have ongoing negotiations and discussions with the Turks on a range of issues and I would invite that because everything you said is important. Turkey is important, we do support them getting into the EU. So the issue is how can we play a more active role in trying to move this agenda and really I think that EU membership is one of the strongest tools we have to resolve Cyprus. I think it goes hand in hand.”

Senator Barack Obama

Senator Barack Obama believes that America’s greatest challenge is the war on terror and that the best weapon against it, in addition to the U.S. military, has to be “the strength of our diplomacy and the power of our alliances.”

Sen. Obama: “Obviously one of our strongest alliances is with Greece. It is no accident that Greece and the United States were on the same side of every major conflict of the 20th century. It is no accident that Greece remains one of our closest partners in the Mediterranean. The long relationship between Greece and the United States is an example of why it is critical for the world’s democracies to work together. And one way we have done this is by joining together to combat international terrorism.”

The Senator from Illinois then turned to Cyprus.

Sen. Obama: “America has been able to rely on Cyprus in the war on terror and we were able to rely on Cyprus during the Lebanon crisis. So we should work to find a solution to the situation in Cyprus that is acceptable to both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, one that is based on the rule of law, not on force, one that is based on the U.N. resolutions past on the Cyprus issue and on the very principles and standards of the EU, of which Cyprus is a member.”

Senator Obama also addressed the issue of religious freedom in Turkey.

Sen. Obama: “During this week, a week that marks the 85th anniversary of the official founding of the Greek Orthodox Diocese in America, we should also remember that there is one in Istanbul that is not yet free. I believe it is time for Turkey to honor the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate there, which includes ending the seizure of Greek Orthodox Church property and the reopening of the School of Theology in Istanbul. It is time for America to stand with our allies and stand with all those around the world who long to live for dignity and opportunity, security and freedom.”

Senator Obama wrapped up his speech with a reference to the Greek-American community.

Sen. Obama: “I have always been so impressed with the capacity of the Greek American community to stay close to its roots, to stay passionate about the issues that confront Greece and yet be quintessentially American. That’s what we always are, as a people. We are best when we remind ourselves with our past, we remind ourselves of our immigrant heritage, we do not discard those traditions that have been so important to us, we do not ignore the injustices that have occurred in the past here in the U.S., that there have been times when the Greek community was discriminated against just as the African American community has obviously suffered a long history of injustice here and yet we remain hopeful and optimistic about the future.”

Senator John McCain

Senator John McCain was laconic by contrast to the other candidates. Given that he was not present in the conference room the Senator from Arizona could not have the benefit of being briefed by aides on the issues that Greek American leaders had raised and the policy positions subsequently taken by his democratic rivals on those issues.

Senator McCain reiterated his general support for all noble causes of the Greek American community, particularly for the Orthodox Church and religious freedom throughout the world. He then shared some prized personal experiences from the days when he was a young Navy pilot on board the aircraft carrier Enterprise in the Mediterranean. The Senator strolled down memory lane and described trips he then took to the port of Piraeus and the capital of Athens, where he had “one of the most wonderful times of my life”, attending Greek weddings and learning, “in a very clumsy way”, to dance the Sirtaki. At that point an excited conference participant shouted: “You just picked up one more vote Senator.”

Senator McCain left his audience with the following message:

Sen. McCain: “Please know of my continued advocacy of cross ties between the United States and Greece but more importantly for my profound appreciation and love of the principles, which were given birth so many thousands of years ago in Greece and they are as vibrant and as important today, maybe in some ways more important, as we are in this incredible struggle with radical Islamic extremism, than they have ever been.”

Early reactions

Distinguished members of the Greek-American community introduced each of the candidates to the conference participants. Andrew Manatos, President of the National Coordinated Effort of Hellenes (CEH), introduced Senators Joe Biden and John McCain; Eleni Kounalakis, daughter of businessman Angelo Tsakopoulos, the largest Democratic Party contributor in California, introduced Senator Clinton; and Alexi Giannoulias, Treasurer for the State of Illinois, introduced Senator Obama.

Conference participants seemed very impressed by all four candidates. Hellenes who consider supporting Senator Biden in the race for the White House believe “he knows better than any other candidate” the issues that are close to the heart of the Hellenes and “has spent a whole life in Congress advocating for our causes. ”

Committed supporters of Senator Clinton feel that “she is the Democratic front-runner in the Greek American community” and “deserves” to stay in that place “for all the things she has done and continues to do for Hellenism”.

Potential supporters of Senator McCain see him as “a Republican who works well with Democrats” and stress his “experience”, his “outstanding service in the military and in the Congress” and as “a friend of the Hellenic American community”.

Likely supporters of Senator Obama content that “he is the most caring” and “the most charismatic”. When we reporters asked if anyone of his fans wanted to elaborate Alexis Giannoulias came forward.

Mr. Giannoulias: “Knowing him well and speaking as his friend, there is no more genuine, intelligent, capable person to be the leader of the most powerful country in the world than Senator Obama.”

Other participants

The Ambassador of the Republic of Cyprus to the United States Andreas Kakouris was pleased for the opportunity to meet with the presidential candidates and other members of Congress at the Capitol Hill Conference.

Amb. Kakouris: “The candidates for the Office of the President of the United States addressed the Cyprus issue and we welcome the messages they send to us. We hope that they would also be receptive to our messages because the Cyprus problem remains unresolved for 33 years and the Turkish occupation must now end in order for the island and its people to be reunited.”

Most other presidential candidates are expected to address separate events of the Greek-American community, whose affluent members are considered to be among the most active participants in the crucial primary election process.

In fact, two more Presidential candidates were planning to do so during the two-day Conference. Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM) attempted to meet with the Hellene leaders on the opening day but reportedly a conflict in the conference schedule prohibited his presentation. Additionally, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) attended the event but the extended stay of Senator Obama apparently prohibited it as well.

The 23rd Annual Cyprus, Hellenic and Orthodox Issues Conference was organized by the National Coordinated Effort of Hellenes. Former World Council of Hellenes Abroad President Andrew Athens serves as Chairman of CEH; President of the International Committee for Cyprus (PSEKA) Philip Christopher is CEH Vice Chairman; and Executive Board Member of the United Hellenic American Congress Andrew Manatos is President of CEH.

The tradition of U.S. Presidential candidates speaking to the Greek-American community started almost two decades ago in a general election period when the Democratic Party’s nominee was Hellene American Michael Dukakis. Mr. Dukakis and the Republican Party’s nominee George H.W.Bush each addressed the Greek Orthodox Clergy-Laity Congress in Boston, in 1988.