Secretary Begins Trip to North Africa, Middle East
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, July 29, 2012 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today that North Africa and the Middle East present a confluence of challenges he will explore during his trip to the region.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta gives an in flight press briefing while flying to Tunis, Tunisia, July 29, 2012. Panetta is on a five-day trip to the region, including stops in Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him, the secretary described what he wants to accomplish during his visits to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan.
This is the secretary’s first trip to Tunisia. “I want to commend the Tunisian people on the success of their revolution and to thank the Tunisian armed forces for the positive role they play during that time of change,” he said during a news conference aboard his aircraft. “The United States continues to support efforts to strengthen Tunisia’s democracy, and DOD will play an important role in that effort.”
U.S. personnel will partner more closely with Tunisian service members on a range of common regional security challenges, Panetta said. Tunisian leaders, he added, have growing concerns about how to deal with the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb terrorist organization and about how to protect their borders.
Panetta will speak with leaders in Tunisia and Egypt about stability and reform amid the changes of the Arab Awakening. In Egypt, the secretary will speak with leaders about finishing the transition to civilian rule and the need to provide for “as broad a coalition as possible,” he said.
The United States has had a strong military-to-military relationship with Egypt since the 1970s, and Panetta said he wants that relationship to continue and grow.
In Israel, the secretary said, he looks to strengthen the already close alliance. In Jordan, he wants to speak to leaders bearing the humanitarian burden caused by the fighting in Syria.
Tunisia and Egypt represent opportunity for the region, Panetta said, noting that both countries overthrew dictatorships and both have transitioned to democratic rule. “Yet at the same time,” he added, “we are obviously dealing with the continuing threat of extremism, of terrorism, of violence in Syria and the continuing destabilizing behavior in Iran.”
At each stop, the secretary said, he will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to stability in the region.
“Our goal is to advance security by supporting peaceful change throughout the region,” he said. “This means establishing strong partnerships with new democratic governments in the region.”