CAIRO (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta left meetings with Egypt's new leaders Tuesday with an optimistic outlook for the valuable American ally emerging from its Arab Spring revolution, saying that he believes new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the country's military chief both are committed to democratic rule.
The Pentagon chief told reporters that Morsi and Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi have a "very good relationship," despite the military's recent moves to limit the powers of the presidency.
Asked about Morsi's affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and its reported ties to Islamic extremist groups like Hamas, Panetta said that after talking to Morsi at the presidential palace he believes Morsi "is his own man."
Panetta spoke positively about the future of Egypt, which is now facing economic distress and political uncertainty after emerging from decades of dictatorship.
"It's clear that Egypt, following the revolution, is committed to putting in place a democratic government," Panetta said, adding, "I am confident that democracy here will fully represent a number of (political) views."
Afterward, Panetta flew to Israel where he will meet Wednesday with top government officials to discuss the crisis in Syria and the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. Those visits will come a few days after presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney visited Israel where he talked tough about Iran's nuclear ambitions and Israel's desire to stop them militarily if necessary.
Panetta told a Cairo press conference that Israeli news reports that he plans to share America's plan for potential war with Iran were a "wrong characterization" of what he will talk about.
He said his talks in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be "more about what is the threat we are confronting" in Iran's nuclear program and sharing intelligence information.
"What we are discussing are various contingencies and how we would respond," he said. Asked whether any such contingencies include plans for potential military action against Iran, he said, "We obviously continue to work on a number of options in that area."
While in Israel, Panetta also planned to inspect and get briefed on an air defense system known as the Iron Dome, which is designed to shoot down short-range rockets and artillery shells such as those that have been fired into the Jewish state in recent years from Islamic militants linked to Iran and based in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
In his remarks in Cairo, Panetta reiterated that Washington is not contemplating unilateral military action in Syria to force Bashar Assad from power.
"We have a responsibility as Department of Defense to prepare a number of options in order to respond to the president should he ask for particular options on the military side," he said.