Trip Wires

Domestic politics follow Leon Panetta to the Middle East.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

CARTHAGE, Tunisia — If the timing of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s trip to Israel and the Middle East this week is a "coincidence," as White House spokesman Jay Carney asserted on Friday, it’s one of the most politically convenient in presidential campaign history. President Obama’s Pentagon chief arrived from Washington on Sunday for high-level talks in Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan during Mitt Romney’s highly publicized visit to Israel between London and Poland.

Panetta’s visit follows trips to the Middle East and North Africa this month by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and other administration officials. They’re part of an Obama administration blitz designed to demonstrate at home and abroad U.S. support for new democratic governments, in Tunisia and Egypt, and old: namely Israel. President Obama himself cannot wade into the morass with a regional visit 100 days from Election Day; it would only invite a lost week of campaign distractions, and probably sway few votes. But he doesn’t have to. After the diplomats and White House advisors comes Panetta, bringing the full-throated, frank-talking, multi-billion dollar support of the U.S. military.

In the run-up to Romney’s trip, conservatives had slammed Obama’s handling of the Middle East as ignoring Israel — the president has not visited Jerusalem and the administration, Romney argues, has discouraged Israel’s threats to use military force to halt Iran’s apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons. Obama, the charge continues, is too soft for relying on economic sanctions and international coalition building to stymie Iran, too reluctant to intervene militarily on behalf of Syria’s rebels against the hated Bashar al-Assad, and too weak in his inability to stop the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in Egypt.

Despite a campaign pledge not to criticize President Obama while abroad, the Republican candidate wore a thin veil in Israel. The Romney photo-op visit to the holy city — his call for "further action" against Iran received a warm welcome from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and on Monday Romney is to headline a $50,000-per couple fundraising dinner at the famed King David Hotel — is the culmination of who-loves-Israel-more conservative politicking. In his keynote speech, Romney said he recognized the hardships of "the Jewish people" and said U.S. policies should not create "diplomatic distance in public" with Israel.

He also supported Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital, which Israeli press called an "easy applause line" and a Palestinian official called "disturbing." The entire spectacle served its purpose: to show that Romney can look like a world leader, especially to the Jewish voters important to winning Florida’s electoral votes, and to evangelicals, whom Romney will need to show up at the polls to unseat Obama. 

Panetta, a former member of Congress, knows plenty about stumping himself. In his speeches to troops slogging it out in Afghanistan, he often invokes his American experience story of being the son of Italian immigrants, sounding more like a pol at a whistle-stop pep rally than the dry "I love you like my own sons" speeches of his soft-spoken predecessor, Robert Gates. And, unlike Gates, Panetta has not hesitated to wade into politics, bantering publicly with his former Capitol Hill colleagues over the size of the defense budget and the direction House and Senate party leaders should take on taxes and spending. 

But Panetta suddenly lost his voice when he was asked Sunday aboard his plane whether Romney’s Israel visit was fair game for politics or if there was a national security concern to having a Republican candidate put daylight between the president and foreign allies. "I’m just not going to get into that game of commenting on what candidates do," he told reporters in a press briefing aboard his plane en route to Tunisia. "As secretary of defense, I have a responsibility to defend the security of our country. And in order to do that I’ve got to have the support of both Democrats and Republicans to get that accomplished; and for that reason I try my best not to get involved in the politics."

Instead, the administration seems to be trying to let the facts speak for themselves.

Aides stressed that on this trip Panetta will have his ninth meeting with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak since taking office last year, more than any other foreign counterpart. Panetta also will visit a site of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which on Friday received Obama’s signature for $70 million in aid. Republicans earlier this year had pushed the White House to approve significant funding for the system, but the president turned the tables by holding a relatively rare bill-signing ceremony on the day Romney entered Israel. "I’m proud of the defense partnership that we’ve built over the last several years," Panetta said on the plane. "The U.S.-Israel defense relationship, I believe, is stronger today than it has been in the past."

On Iran, also, Panetta repeated the administration’s position that it remains united with Israel to "bring every bit of pressure we can" to sway Tehran from nuclear weapons. But the real issue for conservatives is timing — and Israeli pronouncements that military action would be necessary sooner than Washington publicly admits. For years, Israeli officials have claimed that time is running out military action before Iran can develop nuclear weapons or facilities buried deep enough to survive missile strikes. And for years, U.S. defense and intelligence leaders have respectfully disagreed at how fast that clock was ticking. 

Netanyahu, with Romney at his side, said on Sunday that a "strong and credible military threat" was needed in addition to sanctions. In speech excerpts released Sunday, Romney argued that Tehran was testing those "who will look the other way" and said he wanted to hear "further actions." Panetta would not engage in further questioning on Monday about the difference between the U.S.’s and Israel’s sense of timing. "The president has made clear and I’ve made clear that the United States will not tolerate an Iran that develops a nuclear weapon, and we are prepared to exercise all options to ensure that that does not happen," he said at a press conference in the North Africa American Cemetery, where he laid a wreath in honor of World War II dead.

"While the results of that may not be obvious at the moment, the fact is that they [Iran] have expressed a willingness to try to negotiate with the P5+1" — that is, the permanent five members of the UN Security Council and Germany — "and they continue to seem interested in trying to find a diplomatic solution. I think what we all need to do is to continue the pressure on Iran economically and diplomatically." Sanctions are fomenting discontent in Iran, U.S. defense and intelligence leaders have told Congress this year, and Panetta noted that more are coming, though he danced around a reporter’s question asking him if sanctions are swaying Iran’s leadership. 

Beyond the Romney side-show, Panetta said on Sunday that Syria would permeate his week in the region. Syrian tanks reportedly shelled rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo days after State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland publicly warned of a pending "massacre" there. Should the Aleppo assault continue, Panetta said, "I think it ultimately will be a nail in Assad’s coffin; that he’s just assuring the Assad regime will come to an end." He cited the combination of increased "indiscriminate violence" against civilians in recent weeks and the ability of rebel opponents "to assert themselves." 

Observers also worry a sustained Aleppo battle or massacre could cause 3 million residents to flee for the borders, further pressuring the United States and the international community into more directly supporting refugees with military action such as cover fire or no-fly zones. A refugee flood also could force Netanyahu to explain at the podium with Panetta later this week Israel’s decision to close its the border into Golan Heights. Panetta applauded Jordan for keep its borders open.

It’s unclear exactly what else Panetta publicly will say about helping Syria during his stay. The White House still opposes directly arming the rebels, creating a no-fly zone, or providing any air support against Syria’s hardened air defenses. But Washington’s distance is being felt on the ground, where fighters have complained that the guns and ammunition being sent from Arab states are not good enough. Last week NPR radio aired an interview with grieving wives of fallen rebels; they vowed to defeat Assad and never forget what the Americans refused to do.

In the United States, conservatives aren’t holding back. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers accused U.S. intelligence services of being "very slow" to get organized on Syria, according to Reuters, and Sen. John McCain argued, "They have no policy." 

For all the talk of not engaging in politics abroad, Panetta’s trip has a decidedly domestic subtext. Soon, he will become the second Obama cabinet member to shake hands with the Muslim Brotherhood. He will meet Morsi in Cairo on Tuesday. 

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