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.