Press Round Table with Secretary Panetta and Ambassador Patterson in Cairo, Egypt
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: Everybody ready?
It is a personal pleasure to be here in Cairo. This is my second trip to Egypt as Secretary of Defense, although I've taken a number of trips here in other capacities.
I'd also like to thank Ambassador Anne Patterson for joining me here. She is truly an outstanding ambassador. I had a chance to work with her closely in Pakistan, and now we continue that cooperation here in Egypt.
I just completed some very productive meetings with President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi. It was my first meeting with President Morsi, and I congratulated him and the Egyptian people on this important moment in Egypt's transition to democracy.
I also met with Field Marshal Tantawi, and my message today was consistent with our previous conversations. The U.S. strongly supports an orderly, peaceful and legitimate transition to a democratic system of government here in Egypt.
Field Marshal Tantawi's leadership, I believe, has been critical in overseeing a peaceful, free and fair election. And I commended him and the SCAF [Supreme Council of Armed Forces] on their positive role in this process.
I was pleased to hear Field Marshal Tantawi affirm his continuing commitment to the transition to full civilian rule. Their support for this process will remain important in the months ahead.
The United States strongly supports Egypt's democratic future, and we have an interest in seeing Egypt succeed.
As Secretary Clinton made clear in Alexandria earlier this month, we are committed to economic assistance that will help Egyptians create jobs, grow the economy and widen the circle of prosperity.
In my discussions with the president and Field Marshal Tantawi, we affirmed the importance of the U.S.-Egypt defense relationship and of our strong mil-to-mil relationship. It has been an anchor of regional stability for more than 30 years and a positive force during this transition.
We discussed a range of shared security challenges, from violent extremism to concerns surrounding Egypt's border, and we agreed that these challenges are best confronted cooperatively.
I was pleased to hear Egypt's leaders affirm the importance of honoring international commitments.
Going forward, we are committed to helping a sovereign Egypt complete the transformation to full civilian rule.
There will be challenges ahead. The effort to try to put in place democratic institutions of government and the constitutional reforms. The importance of the challenge of strengthening the economy here. The importance of providing for the security of Egypt. And the importance of promoting a broad-based coalition that is critical to the success of government here in Egypt.
I believe that the outcome of confronting these challenges will be a better and more prosperous future for the people of Egypt. And once again I would like to commend President Morsi and the Egyptian people on achieving this historic moment in their long history.
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS GEORGE LITTLE: The Secretary will now take questions.
Phil Stewart of Reuters?
Q: Mr. Secretary, were you assured by your conversation -- Mr. Secretary, were you assured by your conversations with President Morsi that you can depend on this new relationship, given the Muslim Brotherhood's ties to Hamas, which the United States considers to be a terrorist organization?
And is there a disagreement -- if there were to be a disagreement between Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi over a security matter, whose side would the United States support?
SEC. PANETTA: I was -- I was convinced that President Morsi is his own man and that he is the president of all the Egyptian people and that he is truly committed to implementing democratic reforms here in Egypt.
And it's my view, based on what I have seen and the discussions I've had, that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same ends.
MR. LITTLE: (inaudible) of Egyptian TV?
MR. LITTLE: Take the microphone.
Q: Okay. Thank you.
Now we have a new president with an Islamic background. Also, the new government that will be formed during our (inaudible). Does that make United States change its military policy (inaudible) or you will follow the same way as well? How will be the military cooperation between the two countries, Egypt and United States, during the next phase?
And finally, you are always saying that United States seeks to maintain the security in the region in all the countries, okay? Is that to save Israel and its border? Thank you.
SEC. PANETTA: Okay. I mean, first of all, I think it's clear that Egypt, following the revolution, is committed to putting in place a democratic government.
And a democratic government represents I think all of the constituencies and interests that are here in Egypt. And for that reason, I am confident that -- that the democracy here will fully represent, you know, a number of views. My own country is an example of democracy where there are sometimes very different views as to how issues ought to be dealt with.
But in the context of the democratic institutions that we have put -- put in place, there is a free and fair debate over those issues and what course of action should be taken. And I'm confident that the same thing will happen here in Egypt.
For that reason, there is continuing support for a strong mil-to-mil relationship because security for Egypt is important to the stability of this country as it implements this democratic transition. We have -- we have a history of working together in a cooperative way with the Egyptian military leadership. We will continue to provide whatever aid or assistance we can to try to help them in this effort.
And it was clear to me both from Field Marshal Tantawi and President Morsi that they, too, are committed to continuing that relationship. And our goal, frankly, is an Egypt that can secure itself in the region so that it can be a strong democracy for the future.
MR. LITTLE: Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times.
Q: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.
Yesterday or the day before, you talked about going to Israel and discussing contingencies with the Israeli leadership. Today, I'm sure you know, in the Israeli press there's a lot of reports that you're going to go, and in fact those contingencies would include discussing U.S. war plans for a strike on Iran, should it come to that after some time.
Could you expand on that? I assume the contingencies you're discussing include a military option for the United States.
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, we -- we have in the past and we'll continue to discuss the situation with regards to Iran and the threat that it poses in the region. Both of our countries are committed to ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. And to that extent, we continue to -- to work together in the effort to ensure that Iran does not reach that -- that point of developing a nuclear weapon.
As -- as with regards to any specific plans, you know, we -- we -- I think it's the wrong characterization to say that we're -- we're going to be discussing potential attack plans. What we are discussing are various contingencies and how we would respond.
Q: (inaudible) military option plan?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, we -- we don't talk about, obviously, you know, what specific military plans that we have. We -- we obviously continue to work on a number of options in that area. But the discussions that I hope to have with Israel are going to be more about what is the threat that we're confronting and to try to share both information and intelligence on that.
MR. LITTLE: (inaudible)?
Q: What are the American military options in Syria? Would Washington act unilaterally? Is part of your case is to make a unified position to move ahead.
And my second question is related to Egypt. What -- what did you take about (inaudible) as a condition for U.S. aid to Egypt (inaudible) of the military and police (inaudible)? And did you raise this issue with military leaders today? Thank you.
SEC. PANETTA: With regard to Pat Leahy’s issues, I have not -- I have not looked at what, you know, what specifics he's raised. I guess I would ask Anne Patterson if she's familiar with any of those issues.
AMBASSADOR ANNE PATTERSON: As a matter of policy, the administration opposes conditions on military assistance to Egypt. And we've been in a discussion with -- with Senator Leahy and members of Senator Leahy's staff and other members of our Congress about these conditions. But our policy on that is quite straightforward. Generally, we oppose conditions (inaudible).
SEC. PANETTA: And with regards to the situation in Syria, we have a responsibility at the Department of Defense to prepare a number of options in order to respond to the president should he ask for particular options on the military side. But the situation right now is one in which the United States continues to work with our international allies to try to bring as much pressure as possible on the Assad regime for Assad to step down and for them to implement democratic reforms that will protect and give opportunity to the Syrian people.
In addition to that, we are working on efforts to provide humanitarian assistance because of the refugee issues that are impacting on both Turkey and Jordan, and to provide whatever assistance we can to help in the humanitarian area.
The other area that we are continuing to work on is the security of the chemical and biological sites that are located in Syria. We are concerned that those sites be secured and that those weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.
And lastly, there are efforts to provide assistance to the opposition as they confront the Assad regime. Those are areas where we are continuing to do everything we can to try to ensure that ultimately Assad does the right thing, steps down, and allows Syria to be -- to be controlled and to be governed by the Syrian people.
SEC. PANETTA: At this time, you know, as I said, we prepare options, but at this point, we are continuing to work on -- with the international community and are not contemplating any unilateral steps.
MR. LITTLE: We have time for a couple more questions.
Adam -- Adam Entous of the Wall Street Journal.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
I just wanted to clarify in response to Elizabeth's question, when you talk about contingencies and how we'd respond, do you mean we'd respond to an Iranian -- Iran responding to an Israeli strike? Is that what you mean? In other words, protecting Israel in the event that rockets are fired from Iran?
And then on -- with regard to the situation here in Egypt, you had an exceptionally close relationship with Suleiman and Mubarak on key counterterrorism cooperation. Can you realistically expect a government dominated by Muslim Brotherhood to be as aggressive against A.Q. [Al Qaida] and other groups?
SEC. PANETTA: First of all, you know, again we -- we discuss various contingencies. And I'm not going to go into details as to what exactly those various contingencies would be other than to say that we discuss what -- what the situation is, we share intelligence, we share information, and we share concerns about how those -- those issues should be addressed. But I'm not going to go into specifics about the -- the contingencies that we discuss.
With regards to Suleiman and -- and -- and the efforts in the past dealing with Egypt, there's no question that there was a -- a relationship to -- to work together to confront Al Qaida and extremism.
And it was interesting that I raised those issues with both Field Marshal Tantawi and with President Morsi, and they agreed that, you know, they would cooperate in every way possible to ensure that -- that extremists like Al Qaida are dealt with and that efforts are made to provide strong counterterrorism efforts in order to ensure that Egypt is protected and secured for the future.
MR. LITTLE: Final question, from the Middle East News Agency, (inaudible).
Q: Mr. Minister, do you think after talking with President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi today that there is a need for stability to increase Egyptian troops in Sinai?
SEC. PANETTA: (inaudible)
Q: In Sinai.
SEC. PANETTA: That there is an effort to?
Q: To increase Egyptian troops in Sinai.
SEC. PANETTA: We -- the issue of Sinai was raised, both in my discussions with Field Marshal Tantawi and with President Morsi. And we, you know, we believe that the issues in the Sinai are obviously under the jurisdiction of Egypt to try to maintain security in the Sinai.
We indicated concerns about some of the security threats there. some of it the result of, you know, border -- border efforts that have not been sometimes effective at controlling individuals and weapons that have come through the various borders and that have impacted there. There have been some circumstances that have concerned us.
But having said that, I think there was a -- there was an understanding that we would continue to work with them in every way possible to provide for that security, but we did not talk about increasing any kind of troop presence there.
MR. LITTLE: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, Ambassador.
Thanks to all of you.