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."