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Wading Cautiously into Presidential Race, Panetta Takes Veiled Slap at the GOP Wading Cautiously into Presidential Race, Panetta Takes Veiled Sl... Wading Cautiously into Presidential Race, Panetta Takes Veiled Slap at... Wading Cautiously into Pr...

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Defense / ANALYSIS

Wading Cautiously into Presidential Race, Panetta Takes Veiled Slap at the GOP

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Tuesday.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

photo of Yochi J. Dreazen
March 6, 2012

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum used an early-morning speech to a powerful pro-Israel lobby Tuesday to accuse the Obama administration of taking too soft an approach towards Iran. Hours later, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued an unusually pointed response.

“In this town, it’s easy to talk tough,” Panetta said, in a subtle reference to Republican critics like Santorum. "Acting tough is a hell of a lot more important.” 

Panetta didn’t mention Santorum by name, but he didn’t need to. The comments weren’t in Panetta’s prepared remarks, and his departure from the text – and the language he chose to use – was clearly intended to respond to the GOP candidates who have spent the spent the run-up to Super Tuesday bashing Obama for his handling of Iran.

 

They also highlighted the fact Iran’s nuclear program has emerged as the dominant foreign-policy issue of the GOP presidential fight, with Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich taking turns teeing off on the administration. 

Romney, speaking by satellite to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Tuesday morning, said “the administration’s naïve outreach to Iran gave the ayatollahs exactly what they wanted most: it gave them time.” 

Santorum, meanwhile, abandoned his last-minute politicking in key Super Tuesday states so he could travel to Washington and address the AIPAC convention in person. Santorum told the crowd the U.S. should destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities if Tehran continued its weapons push and promised that if Iranian leaders “do not tear down those facilities, we will tear them down ourselves.” 

The former Pennsylvania senator trained the rest of his fire on Obama, mocking the president’s earlier promise to always stand behind Israel.

“He says he has Israel’s back,” Santorum said from the podium Panetta would use just hours later. “From everything I’ve seen from the conduct of this administration, he has turned his back on the people of Israel.”

As one would expect, the comments drew an angry response from Democratic lawmakers like Michigan Senator Carl Levin, who said Santorum was trying to use the most important and complex national security issue facing the country for political purposes. More interestingly, they also drew a pointed – if veiled – response from Panetta.

The Defense chief is a former Democratic lawmaker and White House chief of staff, so he’s no stranger to politics. During his tenure at the Pentagon, he’s waded into an array of hot-button issues, calling for tax hikes and cuts to cherished entitlement programs like Social Security so the Defense Department can be shielded from further budget cuts.

Panetta was careful not to mention any of the GOP candidates by name or even specifically attribute the tough talk to the Republican Party.  Still, Panetta’s remarks today were striking because they were made on Super Tuesday, the most important moment to date of the bitter fight for the GOP presidential nomination, and at a closely-watched event like the AIPAC conference. 

The remainder of Panetta’s remarks to his audience at AIPAC was devoted to the substance of dealing with Iran as opposed to the politics of the issue.

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