As presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney kicks off a three-country tour that will culminate in Israel to bolster his foreign policy and national security credentials, the Pentagon announced Thursday that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will visit two key Arab countries before stopping in Israel.
Panetta next week will fly first to Tunisia, the first in a series of Middle East and North African nations that underwent historic political revolts that came to be known as the Arab Spring. Panetta then will visit Egypt, where the Obama administration supported the ouster of former strongman Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally.
In Egypt, Panetta will meet with the two men at the center of what experts say could be a years-long power struggle between an elected government led by a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidate and the nation's powerful military: President Mohamed Morsi and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
"In both countries, he will consult with new leadership and reaffirm the support of the United States to continued reforms," Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. "The secretary's goal on the trip is to affirm the commitment of the United States to the security and stability of the Middle East and North Africa."
Panetta will wrap up his trip in Jordan, which Little said will be important to maintaining stability in the nation's most troubled region.
The administration's aim is "strengthening traditional alliances with countries like Israel and Jordan, and building strong partnerships with new democratic governments," he said.
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.