GULFPORT, Miss. -- Newt Gingrich on Friday called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta after the Pentagon’s top official indicated that the U.S. military would try to seek “international permission” before intervening in Syria. His comments led the Pentagon to emphasize that Panetta would continue consulting with Congress on the issue.
Panetta, in testifying earlier this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, stressed his desire for an international mandate before starting military operations to assist Syrian rebels.
“I have been told that the secretary of Defense has suggested that international agreements override the Congress,” Gingrich told a crowd made up largely of high school students in Gulfport. “If he believes that, he should resign tonight. Let me be clear, Leon Panetta needs to learn we do not have a United Nations secretary of Defense, we have a United States secretary of Defense.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little, however, issued a statement in response indicating Panetta has no desire to keep Congress out of the loop. The secretary appeared on Capitol Hill to have a "direct dialogue" with lawmakers about the situation, Little said, and "he believes those discussions should and will continue."
"As Secretary Panetta told the Congress, the President has the authority under the Constitution to act to defend this country," Little added. "Unfortunately, there are no easy answers in Syria. He emphasized throughout his testimony that working with an international coalition is the most pragmatic option given the wide array of serious challenges presented by the Syria crisis."
Panetta’s comments came in response to a question from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who said Congress was circumvented when President Obama decided to join the NATO coalition in Libya.
Gingrich, who has called for the resignations of several Cabinet heads, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, seized on Panetta’s comments as an example of what he called the Obama administration’s “radical” policies.
The former House speaker is campaigning through Mississippi and Alabama with the hope that wins in both primaries next week will keep his presidential aspirations alive. He has taken to focusing his ire almost solely on Obama.
After stopping by a drilling platform in Laurel, Miss., where he mocked the president for saying that drilling isn’t the solution to America’s energy problems, Gingrich issued a challenge to the commander in chief.
“I want to invite the president to come down to Mississippi and maybe spend part of Monday with me,” Gingrich said. “And we can go to a couple of natural-gas drilling rigs and he can see for himself: It actually works. It’s actually worked historically. It’s actually working right this minute.”
Gingrich also criticized the president on the unemployment numbers released on Friday, which showed the U.S. adding more than 200,000 jobs for the third consecutive month while the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 8.3 percent. The numbers were “totally false,” Gingrich said.
“His achievement has not been creating jobs, his achievement has been driving people out of the workforce,” Gingrich said, arguing that a large number of Americans have stopped looking for work and these numbers are not reflected in the unemployment percentage.