“This damn country has a hell of a lot of resources,’’ Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta exulted while addressing US troops at Camp Victory in Baghdad on Monday. But Panetta’s irreverent enthusiasm masked an unfortunate fact: His first trip abroad as head of the Pentagon has not gone smoothly. And while it’s easy to chuckle at his missteps, they’re coming at a pivotal time for the United States’ international presence and reputation.
On Saturday, he repeatedly bungled the basics of the Afghanistan troop withdrawal process, telling reporters that the United States will still have 70,000 troops there through 2014, even though the administration’s actual plan is for a more aggressive drawdown. Then, in his Camp Victory address, he told the troops that they were there “because on 9/11 the United States got attacked’’ by Al Qaeda, echoing the long-discredited line that embroiled the United States in Iraq in the first place.
In both cases, Panetta’s statements fomented confusion and a general sense that the United States doesn’t fully have its act together in its overseas dealings. No one is questioning Panetta’s fitness for the job, which stems from his years as White House chief of staff and director of the CIA; the fact that the Senate confirmed him to his post 100-0 is a telling indicator of the esteem with which he is held by both parties. But perhaps, after years of behind-the-scenes work, Panetta is jumping behind the megaphone a bit too eagerly. For the good of the country’s overseas efforts, he should tread a bit more carefully.