Panetta's message of reassurance also shows limits of U.S. might in Middle East
August 3rd, 2012
12:24 PM ET

Panetta's message of reassurance also shows limits of U.S. might in Middle East

By Barbara Starr

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's recent travels to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan underscored the practical limits of U.S. military power in the region at a time when the threats from Iran's nuclear ambitions and Syria's disintegrating regime could rapidly, and with little predictability, destabilize the always fragile Middle East.

Everywhere he went, Panetta was questioned about U.S. intentions and policies toward Iran and Syria, and he basically offered an answer that, because of those limits, is interestingly the same for both.

First, he reassured that the United States will defend its allies against threats, and second, he pressed repeatedly for the international community to maintain a unified position.

Panetta arrived in the Middle East just as Mitt Romney had left the region, so the defense secretary first had to lay down the political framework that he would not talk about the Republican candidate's views.

"I'm just not going to get into that game of commenting on what candidates do," Panetta told reporters traveling with him. "You know, as secretary of defense I have a responsibility to defend the security of our country. And in order to do that I've got to have the support of both Democrats and Republicans. ... And for that reason I try my best not to get involved in the politics of the moment."

After setting U.S. politics to the side, Panetta's next challenge was to press for that unified position, Iran being just one case in point.

"I think the fact is that when the United States, Israel and the international community remain unified in opposition against Iran, that's the best way to convince Iran to pull back from what they're doing and to abide by international rules and regulations," he said.

But privately Panetta is known to be increasingly concerned that sanctions against Iran are having a limited impact and Iran has shown no interest in responding to the push for international talks on its nuclear program. A unified position against Syria also remains elusive.

Panetta is openly frustrated by Russia's unwillingness to sever its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In two exclusive interviews with CNN during the four-day trip, Panetta made clear he needs unity from the allies because if the regimes in Iran and Syria still believe they have maneuvering room because of a lack of consensus, then neither crisis is solvable any time soon. And he feels time may be running out.

On Syria, Panetta told me: "The problem is that it's near impossible to act unilaterally in that part of the world. It has to be a multilateral effort."

A ticking clock emerged during his brief stop in Jordan, now home to a flood of discontented Syrian refugees. Panetta promised King Abdullah more humanitarian aid, but the king has growing worries about the situation. He is trying to protect his northern border with Syria and make sure that if Syria's chemical weapons fall into militant hands, those weapons don't come into Jordan.

A nightmare scenario could drag U.S. troops into it all. The Pentagon has contingency plans ready to go to help Jordan, but Panetta wants more than just another U.S. effort if it comes to that, and that means Russian involvement.

It is the same broad reassurance Panetta gave the Israelis over Iran's nuclear program. He says he doesn't believe Israel has made a decision yet to strike Iran. The U.S. reassurance? Washington won't let Iran get a nuclear weapon.

"This isn't about containment, it's about prevention," he told me. "We are going to put all kinds of pressure on them to resolve this diplomatically, but if for some reason that doesn't work and they make the decision to proceed with a weapon, then we have options to deal with that militarily if necessary."

Those directly familiar with Panetta's thinking say he hasn't stepped up his public talk of military options to play to Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was more blunt saying he doesn't think sanctions will ever be enough to make Iran's ayatollahs walk back from a nuclear weapons effort.

But just as with Syria, there is a ticking clock. If and when Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon, U.S. and Israeli intelligence has told Panetta that Tehran could make it happen within a year. So it's instructive, perhaps, to review this exchange I had with Panetta in Jerusalem.

Starr: "How ready is this U.S. military to execute such an option if ordered by the president?"

Panetta: "We remain fully prepared to be able to exercise whatever option the president of the United States decides in regards to this issue. That's one of the things we've done is to put our forces in place to be able to defend ourselves and to implement whatever decision the president of the United States makes."

Starr: Is the U.S. naval force in the Gulf your hedge?"

Panetta: "Well, the reality is there's an awful lot of crises going on in the Middle East between Syria, between Iran, between other areas, and so we've deployed a force out here to be able to deal with any contingency. Including that."

Starr: Is the force (in the) Persian Gulf part of your response to be usable against Iran?

Panetta: My responsibility is to make sure that the United States military is prepared to implement whatever the president decides, and we are."

So Panetta, who says his Italian heritage makes him speak bluntly, is worth listening to here in the Middle East. The clock is ticking, options are in place. Everyone basically needs to get a clue.

soundoff (57 Responses)
  1. Skorpio

    The main problem with Iran is its AYATOLLAH. All Muslim clerics are the main instigators of the violence, hatred, vengeance, resentment, terrorism and discrimination. These rats promote, justify and encourage millions of brainless Muslims to commit all kinds of atrocities around the world. Just by watching and listening to all the top world Muslim clerics in their own language because what they say in English is different, anyone can tell these bas-tards are lairs, deceivers, hatemongers, basically they are Satan's disciples.

    August 6, 2012 at 9:39 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Tell me Skorpio, what makes you think that the right-wing thugs in Washington are any better than they are? I for one don't think so!!!

      August 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • Little Green Elf

      And the problem with you is your mom should have swallowed.

      August 6, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  2. obama is weak

    The limit of military intervention is found in the weakness of obama.s backbone

    August 5, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Reply
    • Little Green Elf

      You're truly beyond stupid. When Obama is re-elected, I hope you shoot yourself.

      August 6, 2012 at 7:36 am | Reply
  3. sam

    Hi. My name is sam. I'm looking for a good time. Must love war and have a small tool.

    August 4, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Reply
    • Phunnie boy

      Hello sam. I'm Phunnie boy. As a redneck Tea Partier like you, I love war and bloodshed and love to watch those towelheads get knocked off by our heavily armed troops especially when those towelheads don't stand a Chinaman's chance out there! This thrills me to no end, does it you too?

      August 5, 2012 at 1:33 am | Reply
  4. AL999

    Highspeed: It's stupid people like you that give stupid people a bad rap. Crawl back into your cave and clean your pipes. Hope that stupidity doesn't hurt you too much.

    August 4, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
    • Phunnie boy

      I agree AL999. Inteligent people have no business posting here like you say!!!

      August 5, 2012 at 1:36 am | Reply
    • intelligent

      I'm sure looking at your face would hurt much worse, moron...

      August 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  5. clearick

    People need to understand that Iran is trying to develop WMD's. Anyone supporting that is an IDIOT.

    August 4, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
    • RLTJ's

      Let us put away that crap. Nobody believes in that anymore. My country had been to Iraq for that. No we did not go there because of that crap.

      We went there hoping it will ease our problem at home. We got only fuel price hikes, before, during, and after Iraq invasion, opposite that what we had hoped for.

      August 4, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Reply
    • RLTJ's

      Iran can not go more than the U.S. can. Does that make them more dangerous?

      August 4, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Reply
    • RLTJ's

      Lets go there to pound them because we want to pound them. No more crap that feels like being f–ked. Not twice.

      August 4, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  6. Haider

    People need to understand that Iraq didn't have WMD's and now the media will play an important role making Iran a Nuclear country as it is right now, but they don't have any I am pretty sure. If they did, they would have got them a long time ago from their neighbors. Because, Pakistan had their first Nuclear test in 1999, so if Iran wanted WMD they would have gotten it by now. But as mentioned the Media plays an important role in Wars. Fake media propaganda will lead to disaster. People need to understand that no one wants to live in fear and that we all need to come to the streets and protest against this issue and try to stop these wars through words. A Peaceful demonstration.

    August 4, 2012 at 8:14 am | Reply
  7. Shawn Irwin

    Twelve weeks . . .

    http://news.antiwar.com/2012/08/02/former-mossad-chief-iranians-should-be-very-worried-about-attack-in-next-12-weeks/

    August 4, 2012 at 7:52 am | Reply
  8. Bruce

    WHERE'S ROCKEM SOCKEM MENACHIM (BEGIN) WHEN YOU NEED HIM

    August 3, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Reply
  9. Neil

    Please help us save five jobs.

    http://www.indiegogo.com/save-our-jobs

    Anything you can do to help is great.

    August 3, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Reply
  10. mirage

    no involvement in foreign problems. i don't think we should be sacrificing american lives for foreign causes. i hope the US does not attack iran, and i hope the US does not support israel in an attack on iran.

    August 3, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Reply
    • highspeed

      Great post!

      August 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Reply
    • getlefty

      and just how do any of these events NOT affect American lives?

      August 3, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Reply
      • highspeed

        If Israel is threatening to cause instability in the oil regions of earth, then they need be treated as terrorists.

        August 3, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • jo_smith

      US must be independent ME foreign policy and not be subservient to Is ra eli's dictates..
      WHAT AM I saying... I figured there are many un-American, DUAL-LOYALISTS in US Congress and wall-street / MSM!!! Crap!!!

      August 3, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Reply
    • Andy in Oz

      Would that also mean that forces prepositioned across the globe should be removed and also suggest that the US involvement in Iraq 2.0 and Afghanistan should not have occurred in the first place?

      August 3, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Reply
      • mirage

        correct. i wholly disagree with our troop placements around the globe, and with iraq. as for afghanistan, i think that al qaeda is a stateless criminal group and the conventional military response that the US employed was not appropriate. rather, we should have spent more time gathering intelligence and employing small-scale special forces operations to capture or kill those responsible. note that after 10 years of occupation of afghanistan, we finally killed bin laden in ANOTHER COUNTRY using intelligence and a surgical special forces operation, exactly what i support.

        August 3, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • Joe dirt

      I hope Israel attacks Iran. If you truly were neutral, you wouldn't care if they did.

      August 4, 2012 at 12:03 am | Reply
      • intelligent

        Wat a stupid thing to say........

        August 5, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  11. bribarian

    nobody will fight the zi0nist wars

    August 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Great!!! Finally the Zionists will be allowed to live in peace...

      August 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
      • highspeed

        Not if they keep murdering children.

        Not while I'm alive.

        August 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
      • Thinker23

        @highspeed... Let me understand... Are you the "nobody" willing to fight Israeli war or the "child" Israel will have to kill in order to live in peace?

        August 3, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
      • highspeed

        You understand nothing, to be sure....

        August 4, 2012 at 12:27 am |
    • dan50

      yes, only god will fight for them..

      August 4, 2012 at 1:01 am | Reply
  12. KahokFan99

    Anybody besides me think it's unusual for Israel to be so quiet after the July 18 bombing in Bulgaria? It's been a little over two weeks. They usually do their eye for an eye strikes while the iron is hot. Thinking it might mean they have bigger plans in the near future. The Israelis will strike Iran prior to the US elections to make sure the US jumps in.

    August 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Somehow I recall that it took YEARS (not even weeks) for Israel to find and kill the terrorists responsible for the murder of the Israelis in Munich... It took the US more than 10 years to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. You see, Israelis are not superhuman...

      August 3, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Reply
      • highspeed

        No, they aren't.

        Because they would have flew themselves from the ovens...

        August 3, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Israel will not use force against Iran unless as a last resort in case there will be no other way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.... Regardless of the eelctions in the US or elsewhere.

      August 3, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Reply
      • highspeed

        Israel will kill anybody challenging their zionist philosophies.

        Go back to your hasbara masters you wimp.

        August 3, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  13. quinterius

    Incompetent Panetta who is still learning on the job is just another errand boy going around assuring paranoid allies that the US is committed to stop Iran from going to the moon. Oops, I meant developing nukes, an imaginary claim cooked up by the paranoids in Israel and the stupid neo-cons in Washington.

    August 3, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Of course Iranian nukes are an imaginary claim. After all, everyone knows that hundreds of those nuclear-capable long range ballistic missiles Iran acquired during the last several years will be used as pillars of the new Mosque of Peace in Tehran...

      August 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
      • quinterius

        Where did they acquire the "ballistic missiles?" Iran has no ballistic missiles. Careful, the Cookie Monster is going to come and eat you.

        August 3, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
      • Thinker23

        @quinterius... "an's powerful Revolutionary Guards have test-fired several ballistic missiles, including a long-range variety capable of hitting Israel and US bases in the region, Iranian media has reported.

        The official Irna news agency said the surface-to-surface missiles successfully hit their targets, while semi-official Fars said the weapons included the so-called Shahab-3 missile. It quoted a leading officer as saying the missiles travelled distances of up to 800 miles (1,300km).

        "So far, we have launched missiles from 300 to 1,300 kilometres in the manoeuvre," said General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who heads the Guards' aerospace division. He hinted that some missiles had an even longer range.

        Iran has tested a variety of missiles in previous war games, including a Shahab-3 variant with a range of 1,200 miles"

        Did I answer your question?

        August 3, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
      • highspeed

        What about the israeli nukes, that have been used to extort the US for billions and blood?

        Looser, read a book...

        August 3, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
      • quinterius

        Do you even know what a "ballistic missile" is? Sounds very dangerous! The longest range of Iranian missiles, which I would not ballistic, is 1,200 miles to take your figure. So, what? Indeed they are enough to reach Israel and the US bases in the regions. Well, do you want Iran to be a sitting duck? If Israel is stupid enough to attack Iran, then it deserves to be hit. On the other hand, Iran will never initiate an attack. Iran has not attacked another country for 300 years. Why would it start now when the US will annihilate it the next day? Use your brain, if you have any.

        August 4, 2012 at 3:04 am |
    • clearick

      Iran is already attacking Israel through Hezbollah. And Israel has never used a nuclear weapon in any war so far.

      August 4, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
      • intelligent

        Incredibly stupid post.....ignorant twit..

        August 4, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  14. Thinker23

    Can you please explain the huge benefits the US will gain from the "steam-rolling our way to Syria right after the November elections"? Syrian oil, maybe?

    August 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
    • highspeed

      Israeli security moron.

      Israel would have only Gentiles bleed for their personal safety.

      And on the US dime.

      August 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
      • Thinker23

        Sorry but I'll have to ask you elaborate on this a little bit more. Are you telling us that Israel somehow will become "secure" if "we steam-rolled our way into Syria right after the November election"? How will Israel survive PRIOR to November election then? How it managed to deal with Syria in the past?

        August 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
      • highspeed

        Are you dumb, or stupid?

        August 4, 2012 at 12:29 am |
      • clearick

        It's pretty clear the idiot is you high speed! Syria and Israel haven't any problems for years. And Israel had nothing to do with Syria imploding. No one is worried about what is happening in Syria for Syria, they are worried about Iranian expansion. That bothers Israel more than what might come after Assad.

        August 4, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
      • intelligent

        Clearic, you are the moron....

        If you dont believe me, just read your post.....

        August 4, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
      • quinterius

        You guys better stop calling each other names and discuss the issues in a civil manner please.

        The biggest benefit for Israel is that if Syria implodes, the connection between Iran and Hezbollah will be broken. So, Israel has every interest in the destruction of the Assad regime. But, the real culprits are stupid Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey who are arming and training the murderous rebels in Syria. Of course, the US is orchestrating all this and is guilty as charged.

        August 5, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
      • intelligent

        Quinterus, there is a long honored tradition of calling out hasbara mouthpieces, in a very direct manner.

        I believe the posters above were participating in that tradition.

        I will concur with both of you.

        Thinker however is incapable of intelligent convos, as hasbara agents will do anything to avoid one.

        August 5, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  15. George Patton

    Of course this clown Panetta can express his "reassurance" since the all-mighty U.S. war machine has virtually no equal in the Middle East or Central Asia! I wouldn't be at all surprised if we steam-rolled our way into Syria right after the November electon this fall. The very greed of these right-wing Washington politicians seems to know no limits! There will be more needless bloodshed no matter how you slice it or who gets elected!!!

    August 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Reply

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