BAGHDAD — It’s been nearly a half-century since new Pentagon chief Leon Panetta served in the armed forces. But since taking over as defense secretary this month, he’s shown that he still knows how to express himself like, well, a sailor.
During a 30-minute talk and question-and-answer session with about 100 U.S. soldiers in Baghdad Monday, Panetta used plenty of salty language. Nothing X-rated, mind you, but definitely not diplomatic, either.
He told the troops that family support for service members “counted for a hell of a lot” and promised in turn that “I’m doing every damn thing to protect your families.” For emphasis, he added: “One thing you want to make damn sure of is that they’re taken care of.”
He noted that the region had “had a hell of a lot of turmoil” in recent years. And he said there was a downside to Iraq’s transition to a democratic system, pointing out that the coalition government has dragged its feet on making key cabinet appointments.
“Do they want to have a minister of defense, or don’t they want to have a minister of defense?” he wondered. “But dammit, make a decision.”
He also made the observation that Iraq is oil-rich, although the war has made it tough to keep the pipelines flowing. “This damn country has a hell of a lot of resources,” he said.
Asked by a soldier when NATO allies were going to start pulling their weight, Panetta didn’t hold back. “I’m a believer in partnerships, but when you talk about partnerships, dammit, you’ve got to be partners,” he said.
Panetta, a jovial former congressman from California, has also shown that he’s not afraid to make a point by using a risky combination of humor and religion.
During a tour of the war zone in Afghanistan Sunday, he told a group of Marines and sailors in Helmand province a joke about a rabbi and a priest who went to a boxing match. One of the fighters kept making the sign of the cross, and the rabbi asked the priest why — and whether it did any good.
“It doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you can fight,” the priest replied. The same goes for the military, Panetta said.