Panetta to Explore ‘Big Buckets’ of Issues on Trip
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 29, 2012 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta begins a trip to North Africa and the Middle East today to meet with leaders and take the temperature of a crucial and volatile region.
Panetta will visit Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan.
The region has seen great change in the past year and a half. Peaceful, democratic change has taken place since the Arab Spring, but Syria, Iran and extremism in general have continued to pose challenges. The secretary “will touch on both big buckets of issues” during the trip, a senior defense official, told reporters, speaking on background.
Tunisia began the wave of change in the region when its government was overthrown in January 2011. Protests erupted in other Arab nations, and Egyptians overthrew their government in February 2011. That same month, rebels in Libya began taking action against the government and finally beat the forces of Moammar Gadhafi in August. NATO and Arab nations intervened in the Libyan conflict on the rebel side.
In Yemen, protests drove the government from power in February. Syrians rose against the government of Bashar Assad, but forces loyal to the regime are fighting in many parts of the country. Effects of the protest movement were felt around the Arab world. Protests occurred in Bahrain, Algeria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Tunisia and Egypt are farthest along the road.
“The message [of Panetta’s visit] is just general support for what has happened in Tunisia,” the official said. “It’s been a relatively stable and successful transition in Tunisia.”
Tunisia has huge economic challenges, and these will be discussed, but Panetta plans to lay out the roadmap for the future military-to-military relationship between the United States and Tunisia, the official said in his meetings with leaders there. “The military has played a positive role in Tunisia,” he added, “and we want that to continue.”
In Egypt, Panetta will meet with newly elected President Muhammad Mursi and with Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Panetta has been in constant touch with Tantawi since former President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Tantawi led the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled Egypt between the overthrow and the installation of the elected president.
The secretary also will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. The men will discuss the whole raft of issues, the defense official said, including regional affairs, the threats to Israel and U.S. interests in the region and the way forward.
Panetta also will meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. “Our defense partnership is extremely close,” the official said. “The level of interaction of U.S. government officials with Israeli counterparts has been very intense.”
In Jordan, the secretary will discuss important bilateral defense issues with King Abdullah.
“Syria will obviously be a topic of conversation, as the Jordanians are on the front line of that,” the official said. “The secretary wants to hear more about the humanitarian situation – Jordan and Turkey are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis.”