When he led the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta largely eschewed public pronouncements outside his speeches to Congress. Now that he’s Secretary of Defense, he has a larger platform from which to speak, and a horde of followers in the Pentagon press corps at his heels.
He may have to learn to stick to his approved talking points:
“I’d like things to move a lot faster here, frankly, in terms of the decision-making process,” Mr. Panetta told a gathering of American troops, expressing exasperation with the Iraqi government. “Do they want us to stay, don’t they want us to stay? Do they want to get a minister of defense or don’t they want to get a minister of defense?” He concluded, “Dammit, make a decision.”
Making his first visit to Iraq as defense secretary, Mr. Panetta also 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 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 Qaeda,” Mr. Panetta told Army troops at Camp Victory, the sprawling American military base in Baghdad.
Later, Mr. Panetta told reporters that he was not speaking of the reasons for the 2003 American-led invasion but rather was referring to events afterward.
“I wasn’t saying, you know, the invasion, or going into the issues or the justification of that,” Mr. Panetta said. “It was more the fact that we really had to deal with Al Qaeda here.”
That would be the “homegrown insurgent group that American intelligence says is led by foreigners” in the NYT old formulation. Which formula seems to have fallen out of favor, of late, but never mind.
Panetta’s larger point is irrefutable:
All 46,000 remaining United States troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave by the end of this year under an agreement between the two countries, but both Iraqi and American military commanders believe that some American forces should stay beyond 2011. Few Iraqi politicians are willing to admit publicly that they need American help, but Obama administration officials say the United States will consider staying only if the Iraqis request its help.
The subject is particularly sensitive because the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr helped the current government come to power. Mr. Sadr has said many times that the United States should leave immediately.
Mr. Panetta’s remarks demanding that Mr. Maliki make a decision were the strongest on the subject to date from the Obama administration. American officials say that if the Iraqis wait too long to make a formal request, it will come too late, given the complexity of military withdrawals. Once the Americans withdraw completely, they say, it would be expensive and difficult politically in both the United States and Iraq to bring them back.
The Iraqis, the Americans, the Iranians – everyone – knows that Iraq is still too weak to defend itself from threats on its borders and threats within. For domestic political purposes, the Iraqi government dare not admit it. For domestic political purposes, the US cannot stay without a formal invitation. For external strategic purposes, Tehran is all too happy to see their Arab neighbor fall under its Shia-dominated influence.
And time is running out.