The president lectured the attendees at AIPAC on Sunday, “Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.” This was interpreted both as a blowback to Republican critics and to the Israelis, who had been pressing for more credible rhetoric on the military option.

Everyone from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Maureen Dowd promptly jumped into the fray to chide the Republicans, many of whom have no power other than the bully pulpit, to stop “talk of war.”

Then the meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu took place. And — presto! — three days later Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (who actually is in charge of the big stick) starts talking like Liz Cheney, Bibi and Mitt Romney. The National Journal reports:

The Pentagon is preparing an array of military options for striking Iran if hard-hitting diplomatic and economic sanctions fail to persuade Tehran to drop its nuclear ambitions, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told National Journal in an interview Thursday.

The Pentagon chief said that such planning had been underway “for a long time,” a reflection of the Obama administration’s mounting concern over Iran’s continued progress towards a nuclear weapon. . . .

Panetta said in the interview that an unilateral Israeli strike against Iran would be less effective than one conducted by the U.S., which has a significantly larger air force and an array of advanced weapons which are more powerful than any possessed by the Jewish state. An American strike doesn’t appear imminent; Panetta and Obama have said that all options are on the table when it comes to ending Iran’s nuclear push, but the administration has made clear that it prefers to use diplomatic and economic pressure against Iran instead of resorting to military force.

“If they decided to do it there’s no question that it would have an impact, but I think it’s also clear that if the United States did it we would have a hell of a bigger impact,” Panetta said in the interview.

Oh. Well then, order up some more “loose war talk”!

Everyday is a new position from the Obama team. Is Panetta responding to Republican critics? To the Israelis call for more public saber rattling? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

Obama said at AIPAC he had Israel’s back. The next day he said that didn’t mean anything militarily. And today his defense secretary is talking military action. If you think the Israelis and the Iranians are confused, image how frustrated the Obama talking-point makers are. (What is the line of the day?!)

As for the Democratic leaders in Congress trying to navigate through an election year, they’d be wise not to read the ever-changing tea leaves too closely and just stick to their own solidly pro-Israel views. (The Republican Jewish Coalition is out with an ad tweaking the president by showing clips from the 2011 AIPAC confab at which Democrat after democrat rebuked the president on his “1967 borders” rhetoric.)

What is interesting is that the White House, which is focused 24/7 on reelection, must realize it isn’t smart politics after all to tell everyone to talk down, or shut up, about the Iranian nuclear threat. It’s not even good policy.