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Washington prepares to ramp up military cooperation with Tunisia

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised increased security cooperation with Tunisia during a visit to the North African country Monday, while lawmakers in Washington pressed the administration to do more to build up the U.S.-Tunisia security relationship. "The U.S. Department of Defense stands ready to help Tunisia to ensuring regional stability, to strengthen the capabilities of ...

FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages
FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised increased security cooperation with Tunisia during a visit to the North African country Monday, while lawmakers in Washington pressed the administration to do more to build up the U.S.-Tunisia security relationship.

"The U.S. Department of Defense stands ready to help Tunisia to ensuring regional stability, to strengthen the capabilities of its defense institutions," Panetta said after meeting President Moncef Marzouki today in Tunis. "I was pleased to begin a dialogue about how we can deepen that cooperation in the range of common concerns, counter violent extremism and terrorism… There are a number of efforts that we can assist them with to develop the kind of operations, the kind of intelligence that will help effectively deal with that threat."

Last week, a group of bipartisan senators wrote to President Barack Obama to urge him to expand military cooperation and assistance to the new Tunisian government and broaden the economic and strategic relationship as well, in a previously unreported letter obtained by The Cable. They wrote that Tunisia represents a hopeful model for the Arab Spring but that the country’s path to democratic prosperity is fragile and needs support.

"We applaud the actions taken by your Administration to aid Tunisia during its transition, including the recent reprogramming of $100 million in direct budget support, the establishment of a Millennium Challenge Corporation threshold compact, the creation of a U.S.-Tunisia Enterprise Fund, loan guarantees, and intensive diplomacy by Secretary of State Clinton to persuade other countries around the world to provide help to Tunis. However, we believe that much more can and must be done," wrote Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Coons (D-DE), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and John Hoeven (R-ND).

In addition to counterterrorism assistance, Tunisia needs help securing its borders and training its police force, the senators wrote. They also urged Obama to begin negotiations immediately with Tunisia on a free trade agreement, an idea floated recently by House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA). The senators also want Obama to start a strategic dialogue with Tunisia, to give the relationship more long-term consistency.

"We are concerned that, despite increased U.S. engagement with Tunisia since the revolution last year, much of our interaction with our partners in Tunisia remains unstructured and episodic," they wrote. "As senior officials in your Administration have repeatedly said, the Arab Spring is a historic opportunity to help a critical part of the world move towards greater freedom, stability, and prosperity. When historians look back decades from now, they will judge whether the U.S. government seized or squandered this moment."

Lieberman went to Tunisia most recently in December 2011. McCain and Hoeven went there in February 2012. Lieberman and McCain were also the first senators to visit Tunisia after the  "jasmine revolution," traveling there in February 2011.

According to the Congressional Research Service, Tunisia is set to receive $29.5 million in foreign military financing in fiscal 2012 and $1.9 million in military education under the IMET programs, which bring foreign military leaders to the U.S. for short periods of time. The administration has requested $15 million and $2.3 million, respectively, for fiscal year 2013. The administration allocated $13 million in Defense Department-administered funding for a maritime and border security package in fiscal 2011.

By comparison, Egypt receives approximately 50 times more money than Tunisia in security assistance.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin