South America, NATO, bore reporters

Usually reporters fight for one of the 18 seats in the press cabin of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s 747 “Doomsday” airplane used for overseas trips. Not this time. Panetta left Friday for visits to Peru, Uruguay, and Belgium. The press corps traveling with him consists of three wire reporters and one television pool crew. ...

Anibal Solimano/Getty Images
Anibal Solimano/Getty Images
Anibal Solimano/Getty Images

Usually reporters fight for one of the 18 seats in the press cabin of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s 747 “Doomsday” airplane used for overseas trips. Not this time.

Panetta left Friday for visits to Peru, Uruguay, and Belgium. The press corps traveling with him consists of three wire reporters and one television pool crew. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, all regulars for Panetta travel declined invitations, as did several other news outlets, the E-Ring has learned.

What interest is there in the United States for information about defense relationships with South American countries? Or the Defense Ministerial of the Americas? Not much, apparently.

Usually reporters fight for one of the 18 seats in the press cabin of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s 747 “Doomsday” airplane used for overseas trips. Not this time.

Panetta left Friday for visits to Peru, Uruguay, and Belgium. The press corps traveling with him consists of three wire reporters and one television pool crew. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, all regulars for Panetta travel declined invitations, as did several other news outlets, the E-Ring has learned.

What interest is there in the United States for information about defense relationships with South American countries? Or the Defense Ministerial of the Americas? Not much, apparently.

The third stop, in Brussels, is for another regular meeting of NATO defense ministers. There’s plenty of NATO security activity worth being concerned about: Afghanistan, Libya, the Syria-Turkey border, Iran, Russia, and more.

But there is little interest in flying all the way there to wait outside the NATO headquarters chamber for probably one very brief availability with the secretary and several canned statements and uninformative readouts from press secretaries. There’s even less interest in going through Peru to get to Belgium, not even for the moules-frites.

In Peru, the Pentagon wants to promote “counter-narcotics, counterterrorism and humanitarian operations,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said on Thursday.

In Uruguay, Panetta will join seven other defense ministers at a major regional conference. Canada’s Defense Minister Peter MacKay told the E-Ring last week that the conference — this is the 10th meeting — has become important just to promote the idea of hemispheric defense. You can read about his take on security of the Americas here.

The Americans and Canadians, he said, have a history of training militaries in South America and want to expand to counterterrorism training — part of the teach-a-man-to-fish approach to collective defense both countries are promoting heavily in the post-Iraq/Afghanistan decade.

You can read more about the Pentagon’s intentions in a document released Thursday called the “Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement.” DOD notes that in a “resource constrained environment,” the future requires collective measures.

“This approach acknowledges that no single nation alone can address the multifaceted and overlapping challenges of the 21st century,” it says. Ten years ago, many South American militaries couldn’t help their own neighbors, but now many do. “Colombian security forces are sharing aviation, anti-kidnapping, and counter-narcotics expertise with countries in the Americas and Africa. Salvadoran trainers are supporting the Afghan National Security Forces and deployed 11 rotations of personnel to support the Government of Iraq.”

“We are seeing remarkable transformation through the establishment of formal bilateral, sub-regional, and multilateral defense partnerships; a picture emerges of an interconnected network – a system of defense cooperation.

We’ll keep an eye out for what comes from the conference for you.

As for Brussels, the meeting will occur just days after Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai unleashed a tirade against the U.S. and NATO for not providing Afghanistan adequate weaponry and for fighting Afghan insurgents instead of Pakistani ones. Karzai also tweaked the foreign media writ large for conspiring to convince Afghans their country will fall apart the minute the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2015. NATO will have to respond, and it’s not uncommon for the defense or foreign ministers of non-American members to let their feelings be known.

Look also for Panetta to make news along the way somehow. The press will have several availabilities with him in a short time, so no matter where they are in the world, they will have a chance to put questions to him about any topic they like: Karzai, Iran, Israel, Romney, even Big Bird.

In other words, just another typical Panetta trip abroad.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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