BAGHDAD — At once blunt and bubbly, poised but prone to gaffes, Leon Panetta showed on his first overseas trip as Pentagon chief that he has framed his agenda but not yet mastered the art of expressing it publicly in detail.
In a talk to troops in Afghanistan he said he was the CIA director (his previous job). The next day he invoked the language of George W. Bush in saying the U.S. is at war in Iraq because al-Qaida attacked on 9/11 — a message that runs counter to view of his boss, President Barack Obama.
Panetta, 73, told reporters at the outset of his five-day journey that his main aim was to personally thank U.S. troops for their work and sacrifices over a decade of war. He is following in the footsteps of a popular defense secretary, Robert Gates, for whom troop welfare was a signature issue.
Aside from his 16 years in Congress, from 1977 to 1993, Panetta's long government career has been in behind-the-scenes roles, including White House budget chief and later chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. As defense secretary, though, Panetta now faces a level of public scrutiny — of everything from his policy priorities to his every public utterance — that far exceeds anything he encountered in those earlier jobs.
Panetta was flying home Tuesday from the Kurdish capital of Irbil in northern Iraq. He began his trip in Afghanistan, where he met with U.S. commanders and Afghan government leaders in Kabul, then ventured to the country's southern desert to see U.S. troops on their own turf. In Baghdad on Monday he met Iraq officials and U.S. troops and their commanders.
Each time Panetta stood before an assembly of troops he drove home his point: Americans appreciate their service, and they should be proud of what they have accomplished, regardless of the politics of war. He also stumbled on occasion, even as he left no doubt about his devotion to emulating the Gates approach. As was Gates' practice, he invited questions from troops, but his answers sometimes strayed into the curious and controversial.
In Baghdad on Sunday, for example, Panetta appeared to slip on the politics of the Iraq war, which was started by the Bush administration in March 2003 on grounds that then-ruler Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The Bush White House also suggested a Saddam link to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. by al-Qaida — a connection that President Barack Obama and other Democrats have called wrongheaded.
Panetta seemed to make the Bush argument.
"The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked," he said.
Asked later to explain, he said he was not talking about the rationale for the U.S. invasion but rather the need to go after al-Qaida in Iraq once it developed a lethal presence there as a post-invasion insurgency gained traction. He has said there are about 1,000 al-Qaida fighters in Iraq. That compares with an estimated 50-100 in Afghanistan, where bin Laden was sheltered by the Taliban until the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.
It was obvious that Panetta's 2½-year tenure as CIA director is still on his mind, even as his dives into the more diverse set of global issues a Pentagon chief must deal with. In Baghdad he told troops that as CIA chief he made a point of visiting agency officers around the world to offer his thanks — though in a much less public way. He even mentioned that the spy agency has "a big presence here and a big presence in Afghanistan" — not a secret, certainly, but a point not usually underlined in public.
When he talked about the conflict in Libya he made no bones about the central U.S. objective: "do what we can to bring down the regime of (Moammar) Gadhafi." He skipped the Obama administration's stock line about the U.S. aim being limited to protecting Libyan civilians.
He also showed a tendency to use colorful language, in contrast to the direct-but-cautious language of his predecessor.
"This damned country has a hell of a lot of resources," he said in Baghdad. His point: Iraq stands a decent chance of fending for itself and putting together a relatively prosperous economy after decades of decline.
In the same setting Monday he told U.S. soldiers the Iraqis need to act swiftly on two matters important to their future security: naming a defense minister and deciding whether Iraqi forces need U.S. help longer than originally expected.
"Damn it, make a decision," Panetta said.
Panetta made prominent mention of his role as CIA director in putting together the bold plan that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May. He referred to the former al-Qaida leader as "that son of a bitch."
Said his spokesman, Doug Wilson: "He's a plain-spoken guy."
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP