Both chambers – the House and the Senate – will have to negotiate the final defense budget bill, and the July amendment that Representative Gus Bilirakis (pictured) helped push through will then be debated again. [Jennifer Milbrett/MOAA]
Greek-American Congressman Gus Bilirakis went to bed on the evening of July 13 unaware that the next morning an amendment on an issue of particular concern to him – the sale by the United States to Turkey of 40 F- of American-made 16 fighter jets and 80 upgrade kits for planes it already owns – had to be voted on by Congress. Although he doesn’t usually place much importance on dreams, what he saw that night affected him greatly.
“I saw my parents and myself as a young boy in the ‘Greek Village’ of Tampa, Florida, where I grew up. I sobbed as I told them that I was not going to let it happen: I would not let the Turks take our islands. He remembers waking up anxious after the nightmare. When he discovered that singer Valantis, a beloved cousin, had also texted him in the middle of the night, he was surprised at the coincidence. “Hey how are you? I’m going to Kastellorizo to play and I’ll raise the flag for you too,” his cousin’s message read, in Greek.
No more than 10 minutes later, his phone rang. What he learned left him speechless: Congress was set to vote on the crucial F-16 amendment in just two hours. Neither the dream nor the message seemed like such a coincidence after all. He was on a special mission: “I left for Congress determined not to leave anything to fate,” he told Kathimerini. Seven hours later, at 7:05 p.m. GMT, he messaged his cousin: “We won! The amendment was approved. We will block the purchase of F-16s for Turkey!!!” Three months later, we caught up with Gus Bilirakis in his congressional office where he told us the story behind this highly controversial issue.
For Bilirakis himself, his roots in the island of Kalymnos in the southeastern Aegean Sea and his love for all things Greek certainly played a part in how he approached the issue from the beginning.
Turkey’s aspirations to buy the F-16s were disclosed in October last year, and Bilirakis, along with 40 other members of Congress, immediately sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing their fierce objections. Turkey, they wrote, had already been excluded from the F-35 program because it had purchased Russian weapons systems and returned with a request that could be dangerous. “Don’t try to resort to legal tricks to overcome the hurdle of sanctions. We will not hesitate to take further legislative action to prevent such a development,” they warned.
For Bilirakis himself, his roots in the southeastern Aegean island of Kalymnos and his love for all things Greek certainly played a part in how he approached the issue early on, but he now saw other colleagues, not only of Greek origin, distance themselves. from Turkey. The Turkish lobby, although weakened, pushed, of course, to ignore these first objections. This is one of the reasons why Bilirakis was among those who worked so diligently to make Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ speech to Congress happen. And even though he had Covid that day, he watched, from afar, what the Prime Minister said and believes that speech (which is framed in his office in Congress) also played an important role in the debate on the F-16.
The Greek prime minister at the time raised the issue indirectly, asking US lawmakers to consider ‘the risk of instability in NATO‘s southeast wing’ when making any decisions about supplying equipment military to the countries of the region. The Turkish side has publicly expressed its strong dissatisfaction with this statement and it seems that behind the scenes Turkey was using all remaining weapons: one of them was its veto on Finland’s and Sweden’s membership of the EU. NATO. That’s why Bilirakis grew concerned when President Joe Biden said he was in favor of selling the F-16s in June to Madrid.
On July 14, everyone knew that a crucial battle would be fought in Congress. As soon as Bilirakis received the call informing him that the amendment would be debated within two hours, he got to work. While on his way to Congress, his team sent all Republican lawmakers an email outlining his views on the issue.
Two amendments were tabled (by Congressmen Chris Pappas and Frank Palone) to improve the chances that at least one of them will pass. Eventually, the two amendments were merged, but it was announced that they would not even be advanced due to a procedural problem. Pappas was out due to coronavirus, so Bilirakis, representing his party, spoke to Palone about the Democrats and when they made sure the amendment was going to be considered, he bluntly asked him how many Republican votes were needed for that be advanced. . “Twenty,” Palone replied. “I got it,” Bilirakis said. He had 15 minutes before the closing of the vote. He asked Nicole Malliotakis (also a Republican) to talk to as many of “their” as possible, then went straight to Steve Scalise, their leader whip, who intended to vote no. “I don’t have time to explain all the reasons, but do it for me, do it for Greece,” he said. The man immediately changed his vote, and it was that decisive vote that caused at least 20 Republicans to change theirs as well. The amendment was brought forward 244-179, blocking the sale unless steps are taken to ensure these F-16s “will not be used by Turkey for repeated unauthorized territorial overflights over Greece” .
By another coincidence, that day, and precisely during the vote, Bilirakis had an appointment with the Greek ambassador to the United States, Alexandra Papadopoulou, and the head of the Greek armed forces, Konstantinos Floros. As soon as the amendment was put forward, Bilirakis ran to his office: “We raised the flag of Greece in Washington,” he told them enthusiastically.
It was a very important step, but Bilirakis knew he still had a long way to go before the amendment became law. And of course he knew that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not going to give up. Indeed, the Turkish side claimed that it now had senators and members of Congress on its side. At the same time, however, he did not shy away from uttering threats – bringing back the possibility of a veto on the accession of the two Scandinavian countries to NATO and saying that other countries could respond to his fighter aircraft needs.
“The bullying of Erdogan”
The White House, which does not want to have its hands tied on this file, was also maneuvering behind the scenes.
“Obviously, in Greece, we have to be careful of threats from Turkey, but Erdogan is also intimidating Washington. We’ve had enough of these kinds of tactics,” Bilirakis said.
Last week, however, there was a new development that Greece’s allies did not expect. Two new amendments that were tabled in the Senate – by Bob Menendez and Chris Van Hollen – have not been advanced. The first was identical to that of July and the second imposed additional conditions (in response to the latest Turkish threats, it demanded that Ankara ratify the protocol for the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO and commit to not to use the fighters against the Syrian Kurds). Kathimerini understands that this development is due both to procedural reasons (only amendments with majority consensus have been retained) and certainly also to behind-the-scenes maneuvers by the White House, which does not want to have its hands tied on this issue. .
Now both chambers (House and Senate) will have to negotiate the final defense budget bill, and the July amendment that Bilirakis helped push forward will then be debated again. He and other Greek-American deputies, the Greek Embassy and the Greek-American community will intensify their lobbying.
“It won’t be easy, but the game is not over,” he told Kathimerini.