To All Department of Defense Personnel:
Last week, I took a four-day trip to the Middle East and North Africa – my 13th international TDY as a Secretary of Defense. Now that I am back in Washington, I wanted to share some of my experiences from the trip with you.
My visit to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan took place during a critical moment for the region. Amidst a great deal of turmoil, a real confluence of challenges and opportunities is emerging. We’ve seen peaceful democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, brutal violence in Syria, and a continued threat to regional stability posed by Iran and violent extremism.
As we left Washington on the way to Tunisia, it was clear that this trip would encompass many of these challenges and opportunities. Our first stop was Tunis, the capital of Tunisia and the site of the ancient city of Carthage. Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring, and one of the main purposes of the visit was to commend Tunisia’s leaders, and the people of Tunisia, on the success of their revolution. In meetings with President Marzouki, Prime Minister Jebali and Minister of Defense Zbidi I told them that the United States strongly supported Tunisia’s democratic transition. We all agreed that Tunisia’s emergence as a democracy provides an opportunity to build an expanded relationship across a range of issues – including economic and security cooperation.
After a series of bilateral meetings, I had the opportunity to pay my respects at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial in Carthage, where nearly 7,000 U.S. personnel who were killed or missing during the North Africa campaign in World War II are memorialized. It was an incredibly moving experience to lay a wreath at the cemetery, which is immaculately maintained thanks to the dedication of the American Battle Monuments Commission. I paused beside the grave of Foy Draper, an American gold medalist who ran with Jesse Owens during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Draper was killed in the battle of Kasserine Pass in 1943. Like thousands of others who perished during that campaign, he will never be forgotten.
After visiting the cemetery, we made a brief stop to see the ruins of the old forum at Carthage, situated atop Byrsa Hill overlooking the blue waters of the Mediterranean. During a brief tour of the Carthage National Museum, I paused to look at beautiful, ancient mosaics – testament to the rich culture and history of the region.
My visit to Tunisia ended with an Iftar dinner graciously hosted by Minister of Defense Zbidi. It was an honor to break the Ramadan fast with the Minister and Tunisia’s senior military leaders, who have played a very positive role in the revolution. Tunisia still faces a number of challenges as it continues its democratic consolidation, but I came away from my time their impressed with its leaders courage and vision, and pleased to be able to assure them that the United States supports Tunisia’s democratic change.
Our next stop on this trip was Cairo. Egypt is also undergoing a peaceful democratic transition, and the main purpose of this visit was to meet with their newly elected leader, President Morsi, and with Field Marshal Tantawi, who has been instrumental in leading the historic transition to democratic, civilian rule. The U.S.-Egypt security relationship has been the bedrock of regional stability for more than 30 years. President Morsi affirmed his commitment to that partnership. In private and in public, my message to Egypt’s leadership and the Egyptian people was simple: the United States strongly supports Egypt’s democratic future through an orderly, peaceful and legitimate transition to a democratic system of government.
From Cairo I took a quick flight aboard a C-17 to Tel Aviv for my second visit to Israel as Secretary of Defense – and my fifth since joining the Obama administration in 2009. I have built a strong working relationship with my counterpart, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, and he joined me at my hotel in Jerusalem for a private dinner soon after I arrived. Our conversation focused on the range of pressing security challenges confronting Israel and the United States in the region – most notably Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the violence being perpetrated by the Assad regime in Syria, on Israel’s northern border. The challenges facing the U.S. and Israel are significant, but in the face of those challenges we have reached what Minister Barak has called the strongest levels of defense cooperation in our history.
One tangible sign of that cooperation is the $275 million we have provided Israel to acquire the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system. During my time in Israel, Minister Barak and I had the opportunity to travel to the outskirts of Ashkelon – about 45 minutes south of Tel Aviv – to tour an Iron Dome battery. Iron Dome has had a better than 80 percent success rate at hitting rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli population centers, and it has successfully intercepted more than 100 rockets. We can be proud of this system’s record of saving lives and preventing wider conflict in that region.
At the Iron Dome battery, I spoke publicly of the United States’s rock solid commitment to Israel’s security, which extends to dealing with the threat posed by Iran. The United States shares Israel’s commitment to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, and I carried that message to President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu. While we are focused on increasing diplomatic pressure on Iran through sanctions, I also made clear, publicly and privately, that all options are on the table.
From Israel, I made the short trip to Amman, Jordan, to consult with King Abdullah. This was my first trip to Jordan as Secretary of Defense. The situation in Syria, and its impact on Jordan, dominated our discussion. I told the King we appreciate Jordan’s efforts to keep his country’s borders open to those fleeing the violence in Syria, and that we will work closely with the Government of Jordan to provide humanitarian assistance in support of those affected by the violence in Syria. We both agreed that strong international pressure needs to be sustained to make clear that Assad must go, and that the Syrian people deserve to determine their own future.
After my meeting with the King, I returned to the airport and boarded the Air Force E4-B for the twelve and a half hour flight back to Washington. On the flight, I reflected on the many challenges and opportunities that are facing the region.
In each country, there was a clear desire for closer partnership with our military, and once again I was struck by the deep respect foreign leaders have for our Department of Defense. That is a tribute to you – the millions of men and women who support our mission of protecting the country, and advancing U.S. security interests around the globe. In a time of challenge and turmoil, your efforts are helping American play a positive role in supporting change throughout the region.
You will always have my gratitude, and the gratitude of the American people, for your work in helping us achieve a safer and more secure future.