National Security

Trip Wires

Domestic politics follow Leon Panetta to the Middle East.

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. 

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Argument

Beijing's Real Olympic Hero

Meet Ji Sizun, imprisoned for three years for daring to take China's promises of greater openness at the 2008 Games at face value.

Four years ago, amid the pyrotechnics and superlatives in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ji Sizun's aspirations were relatively modest. A 61-year-old self-described legal activist from Fujian province, Ji had little interest in the athletic events, let alone the Chinese government's relentless "One World, One Dream" Olympics propaganda campaign that pitched the games as proof of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's wisdom in guiding the country to world-power status.

Instead, Ji saw the Beijing Olympics as a platform to highlight problems in Chinese governance and society, including the need for greater participation of citizens in political processes and redress for rampant official corruption and abuses of power.

Under normal circumstances, Ji's plan for a successful public protest in Beijing would have been foolhardy, especially during a Chinese government-designated "sensitive" period for a high-profile event such as the Olympics. The Chinese government rarely tolerates public protests; those that do occur are usually quickly dispersed and their participants often detained. China's security agencies, flush with a "stability maintenance" budget that will reach $111 billion this year, are adept at efficiently silencing potential protesters.

Ji knew all this. But he also knew that the Chinese government had promised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that it would suspend its repressive reflexes and observe international standards of free expression and association during the games. After all, Liu Shaowu, the security director for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) had on July 23, 2008, publicly vowed that "people or protesters who want to express their personal opinions can go to do so" in line with "common practice in other countries." The BOCOG even established three official protest zones in Beijing where groups and individuals would be free to peacefully demonstrate without fear of official reprisals. The Washington Post reported that in an August 2008 interview, Ji said that "he believed the offer was sincere and represented the beginning of a new era for human rights in China."

So Ji -- along with dozens of other brave Chinese souls who took Liu at his word -- applied for a permit to demonstrate. On August 8, 2008, the day of the opening ceremony, he entered a police station in Beijing's Xicheng district to file his application. But as a veteran activist, Ji took precautions. So before returning three days later, he contacted several foreign correspondents and asked them to wait outside the station while he entered to pick up his permit.

About 90 minutes after Ji entered the police station, those reporters watched aghast as several men who appeared to be plainclothes policemen escorted him out of the building and put him in a dark, unmarked Buick. As the car sped off, Ji managed to make a short call to his family to notify them he had "problems." That was the last time anyone heard from him for five months. On Jan. 7, 2009, Ji's lawyer announced that a Fujian court had convicted his client on dubious forgery charges and had sentenced him to a three-year prison term.

Ji wasn't the only victim of the Chinese government's Olympic "protest zone" duplicity. Police met parents wanting to protest the deaths of their children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake at Sichuan's Chengdu airport and tore up their airline tickets. Nor was age a barrier to the Chinese government's determination to derail any possible Olympics protests and punish potential protesters. Two Beijing women in their late 70s who had applied for protest permits in early August 2008 were sentenced to camps to be "re-educated" through forced labor. Only an international outcry prompted the Chinese government to overturn that verdict.

Why did Chinese leaders promise freedom and then take it away? The Chinese government made human rights improvements an explicit component of its bid for the 2008 Games. Yet as the Olympics neared, Beijing continued to restrict media freedom, violate the rights of migrant workers, and illegally evict and demolish homes to build Olympic infrastructure. The Chinese Communist Party feared challenges to its political legitimacy far more than it respected the IOC, and it rightly calculated that the IOC valued its friendly relationship with the Chinese government more than its duty to enforce Beijing's Olympics-related rights commitments.

The party was right, though the IOC's failure to speak out forcefully about these abuses did prompt serious international dismay. Despite the extensive documentation of Olympics-related rights violations prior to the start of the Beijing Games, IOC President Jacques Rogge insisted two days before the opening ceremony, "We believe the games are going to move ahead the agenda of the social and human rights as far as possible; the games are going to be a force for good." An official IOC review of the Beijing Olympics released in November 2008 praised the games as an "indisputable success" without mentioning the numerous documented Olympics-related human rights and press freedom violations.

Ji could have given a credible repudiation of that IOC claim, but of course in November 2008 he remained in the hands of Chinese security forces, whereabouts unknown, a situation contravening both Chinese law and international human rights standards of due legal process. In February 2009, Ji wrote from prison in a letter to his family that he kept the faith in his pursuit of justice and the Chinese legal system. "Everything is fine here, please don't worry! Please believe that I only have done good rather than brought harm to our people and country. I will win the lawsuit in the end," Ji wrote.

Ji was released from prison on June 27, 2011, to what Chinese dissident website Boxun described as a warm reception by activists and residents of his Fujian village. Photographs showed Ji surrounded by well-wishers holding a giant red banner emblazoned with the words, "Thank you, citizen Ji Sizun!"

Despite his Olympic lesson on the costs of activism, Ji has continued to challenge the Chinese government's often abusive status quo. And he has continued to pay the price. In June 2011, a team of plainclothes police reportedly detained Ji as he attempted to board a train to Beijing ahead of the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. They held Ji for several hours before releasing him, long after the departure of his Beijing train. Government surveillance and intimidation of Ji reportedly ramped up in December 2011 with the round-the-clock monitoring of his home by local government officials and police.

As the Olympic torch enters the stadium for the start of the 2012 London Games, it's likely that Ji Sizun will be spending his day in much the same way he has spent most days since the Beijing Olympics: confined, silenced, and dreaming of a fairer and more just China.

MARCUS BRANDT/AFP/Getty Images