The new secretary of defense -- on the job for just 11 days -- expressed frustration with Iraqi leaders, who have yet to tell the United States what their position is about keeping American troops there past the expiration of the current Status of Forces Agreement. All U.S. troops are supposed to leave by the end of this year, under the terms of the 2008 deal. Washington has indicated it would be willing to negotiate a continued troop presence there, but Iraq must first ask it to do so.
"I'd like things to move a lot faster here, frankly, in terms of the decision-making process. I'd like them to make a decision, you know: Do they want us to stay? Don't they want us to stay? ... But damn it, make a decision," he told a gathering of troops, according to NPR.
Panetta was in Iraq today after spending two days in Afghanistan, where he met with Hamid Karzai -- his first trip to both countries as the new Pentagon chief.
The longer Iraq takes to make up its mind, however, the more costly it will be for the United States to reverse course.
Meanwhile, the United States believes that Iran is behind an increasing number of attacks against American troops in Iraq -- part of a campaign to convince it not to stay on in the country. June was the deadliest month in over two years for American troops there -- with 15 soldiers killed.
"This is really crunch time with the clock what it is and Ramadan approaching," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "The U.S. wants a sense of whether the Iraqi political system will give approval. For the U.S. side of things, Iraq is in the rearview mirror."
Katulis told Foreign Policy the administration doesn't want to give the impression it is dictating to the Iraqis what it needs.
"There's a sense in the Obama administration that we want to help the Iraqis complete the mission of helping train the security forces," he said. "But it's all about balancing that with the sensitivities of Iraqi leaders" -- many of whom do not want U.S. troops to stay and are actively fighting to claim the mantle of the leader who forced them out.
Katulis said that quietly, behind closed doors, a range of Iraqi leaders tell U.S. officials they want troops to stick around -- given Iraq still lacks key security infrastructures like an air force or border control -- but it's hard for them to say that publicly.
Slip of the tongue?
Meanwhile, Panetta's trip made headlines for another reason -- the new defense secretary made two separate slips in comments to the press.
In Afghanistan on Saturday, July 9, Panetta seemed to imply the United States had made up its mind about troop levels there as far out as 2014.
"We're going to have 70,000 there through 2014, and obviously, as we get to 2014, we'll develop a plan as to how we reduce that force at that time," he said. "For at least the next two years we're going to have a pretty significant force in place to try to deal with the challenges we face."
President Barack Obama has committed to removing 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and has said that he will drawdown levels at "a steady pace." (NATO agreed last year that 2014 would mark the end of combat operations.) Pentagon officials insist drawdown plans haven't been developed yet -- meaning Panetta misspoke.
"He was not here making new policy. He was not here differing with the president. He was not here making news on numbers at all," Douglas Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told the Wall Street Journal.
And in Iraq today, Wilson had to correct the new Pentagon chief again over comments related to Iraq and 9/11.
"The reason you guys are here is because of 9/11. The U.S. got attacked and 3,000 human beings got killed because of al-Qaida," Panetta told soldiers in Baghdad. "We've been fighting as a result of that."
Maybe the former CIA chief knows something we don't, but a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks has been widely disputed by critics who say it was used as a superficial justification for entering that war.
Wilson once again had to backtrack after Panetta spoke, according to AFP.
‘I don't think he's getting into the argument of 2002-2003,' as the reason for the Iraq invasion, Wilson told reporters, adding that his boss was ‘a plain-spoken secretary.'
‘He has made clear that the major threat to this country is coming from Al-Qaeda and terrorist groups and he has also made clear that wherever we are in the world today, that (Al-Qaeda) is a principle reason for a military presence,' Wilson said.
Katulis said the misstatements, though awkward, weren't that significant.
"A handful of people will pay attention to this," he said. "The question is what is the viable end state in Iraq, not whether we should re-litigate 2003 all over again."
Katulis said the new, more public role of defense secretary will take some time to get used to - especially after spending two and a half years shunning the spotlight as head of the CIA.