Breaking out of his behind-the-scenes position as CIA director, Leon Panetta is already earning a reputation as a bold and outspoken Defense secretary. On his first overseas trip in his new post to Afghanistan and Iraq, Panetta made several headline-grabbing remarks -- some that were quickly qualified by his aides.
'DAMMIT, MAKE A DECISION'
Panetta offered some of the administration's strongest words to date on Iraq's delay in making a decision on whether to ask the U.S. to keep some of its 46,000 troops in the country past the end of the year. He also said it was “frustrating” for the U.S. to continue to wait for Iraq to appoint a minister of defense.
The quote: "I'd like things to move a lot faster here, frankly, in terms of the decision-making process. I'd like them to make the decision, you know: Do they want us to stay? Don't they want us to stay? Do they want to have, you know, a minister of defense or don't they want to get a minister of defense?" Panetta said. "But dammit, make a decision."
The follow-up: Doug Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said the U.S. is “neither pressuring nor pleading for U.S. troops to remain here.” But Panetta did warn Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani that the U.S. is “proceeding to withdraw and there's going to be a point at which it's going to be extremely difficult to entertain a request,” Wilson said, according to The Wall Street Journal.
WE’RE HERE BECAUSE...
Panetta “said flatly -- before he and a Pentagon spokesman qualified his remarks -- that United States forces were in Iraq was because of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That was part of the narrative advanced by former Vice President Dick Cheney and the Bush White House, but it is now widely dismissed,” The New York Times reported.
The quote: “The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11, the United States got attacked, and 3,000 not just Americans, but 3,000 human beings got killed, innocent human beings, because of al-Qaida.”
The follow-up: Panetta later clarified he wasn’t talking about justifications for the invasion, but instead that al-Qaida developed a presence in the country and the U.S. is determined to defeat it. “His aides then intervened and shooed the press corps away,” The Washington Post reported.
Wilson called Panetta a “plain-spoken secretary” and said he wasn’t going down “the rabbit hole” of arguments of Iraq before or after the invasion.
NO NEWS ON NUMBERS YET
In Kabul, Panetta told reporters “repeatedly” that the U.S. is going to have 70,000 troops in the country through 2014. “And obviously, as we get to 2014, we'll develop a plan as to how we reduce that force at that time. For at least the next two years, we're going to have a pretty significant force in place to try to deal with the challenges we face,” he said.
Panetta’s comments prompted a flurry of confusion, as the administration's plan to withdraw troops is more aggressive. President Obama last month announced plans to withdraw the 33,000 “surge” troops from Afghanistan by next September—a move that would leave nearly 70,000 troops still in the country—and promised to continue drawing down until Afghanistan is set to assume security responsibility for the country in 2014.
The follow-up: Panetta’s “aides scurried afterward to say he misspoke,” The Washington Post reported. Wilson said drawdown plans through 2014 have not yet been developed, the Journal reported. "He was not here making new policy. He was not here differing with the president. He was not here making news on numbers at all," Wilson said.
BRINGING DOWN QADDAFI
In Libya, the Obama administration has steered clear of describing the NATO military operation as a vehicle for regime change. But Panetta said this weekend the “primary effort" of the military operation in Libya is to "bring down the regime" of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The United Nations resolution authorized member nations to take “all necessary action” to protect civilians from assault by Qaddafi’s forces.
The follow-up: “Aides said the secretary wasn't contradicting U.S. policy and that Mr. Obama has made clear that the U.S. wants the Libyan leader to go,” the Journal reported.
ON OSAMA BIN LADEN
The former CIA chief was lauded for his role in bringing down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a covert raid in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May. He touted his role in putting together a plan “to get that son of a bitch.”
JUST THE BEGINNING?
When asked by NBC if there will be more of these blunt remarks, Panetta replied, laughing: “Hey, I'm Italian, what the frick can I tell you."