WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration would dearly like to see Greece's Socialist government voted out of office this Sunday--but it's afraid to say so out loud.
"I shouldn't be telling you this," a State Department official said, assuming a furtive look and dropping his voice--"but we'd love to see Papandreou go."
Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou has been a thorn in Washington's side ever since he was first elected eight years ago. He has campaigned against Greece's membership in NATO, frequently charged U.S. interference in Greek affairs and promised to deprive the United States of its military bases in his country--without ever quite following through.
Even worse, U.S. officials complain, Papandreou has turned Greece into a virtual haven for Arab and European terrorists. For years, they charge, the Greek prime minister accepted "substantial contributions" from Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi--and, in return, turned a blind eye to the operations of Libyan agents in Greece.
Papandreou has denied the charge and U.S. officials say their intelligence suggests that the payments from Kadafi have stopped.
Terror Suspect Released
Last year, Greece released a Palestinian who was wanted in Italy for a bloody attack on a Rome synagogue in which a 2-year-old child was killed. Papandreou's minister for justice contended that the man's actions had been part of "the struggle to regain the independence of his homeland." Administration officials accuse Athens of delaying the extradition of another Palestinian wanted in the United States for the 1982 bombing of a Pan Am jet that killed one passenger.
Papandreou's opponent in the election, Constantine Mitsotakis, has promised to shift Greece's foreign policy back toward the United States. Mitsotakis has said he wants Greece to remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, wants to keep U.S. bases in Greece and wants to crack down on terrorism.
Why, then, has the United States been so quiet about the election?
"We're afraid of tipping things the wrong way," said a Pentagon official. "Any time you try to influence a foreign election, you usually create a backlash and you end up with a net loss."
'He May Pull It Off'
Besides, said a State Department official, "Why alienate Papandreou? He may pull it off."
If anything, the Administration has bent over backward to appear unruffled by the prospect of another Papandreou government. President Bush appeared with the Greek prime minister in a "photo opportunity" at the NATO summit in Brussels last month; Papandreou used the photograph in his campaign to reassure centrist voters that he wasn't so anti-American after all. And the State Department has expressed confidence that relations with Greece are improving.
That hasn't stopped both sides in the Greek campaign from attacking the United States occasionally. Papandreou has continued to campaign against "foreign interference," which in Athens means Washington. Oddly enough, the opposition has accused U.S. Ambassador Robert V. Keeley of trying secretly to help Papandreou by telling a reporter that he was unimpressed by Mitsotakis; Keeley has denied saying any such thing.
A recent poll showed Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement with only 36% of the probable vote, well behind Mitsotakis's conservative New Democracy Party with 47%.
But neither party may win a majority in Parliament, an outcome that could be the most troublesome of all from the Administration's standpoint.
If both parties fall short of a majority, Papandreou could try to form a coalition with the Greek Communist Party and other leftist groups--giving Greece a regime that could be the most leftist government ever seen within the NATO alliance.
The resulting situation, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State M. James Wilkinson recently told a congressional committee with some understatement, would be "difficult."