By Phil Stewart
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Leon Panetta's first trip abroad as U.S. defense secretary could have been little more than a photo-opportunity with troops, a chance to say and do what's expected of a new Pentagon boss just settling into his job.
Instead, Panetta has proven himself anything but timid in a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq that has seen him broach sensitive subjects forcefully, giving troops a taste of a blunt leader unafraid of candor -- or colorful language -- to drive home a point.
Take how he publicly aired his frustration over political foot-dragging in Iraq.
"Dammit, make a decision," he said during remarks to U.S. forces in Baghdad on Monday, referring to Iraq's political leadership. The Iraqi government appears unable to decide whether to ask some U.S. troops in the country to stay beyond an end-2011 deadline to withdraw.
Diplomatic? Perhaps not. Still, it was probably exactly what a U.S. soldier or Marine in Iraq was thinking: Am I going home by the end of the year or not? Iraq was meant to decide months ago. The delays are an understandable part of Iraq's democratic process, Panetta said, but that doesn't make them any less vexing.
At 73, Panetta is the oldest person to have been sworn in as U.S. defense secretary. Over the past four decades, Panetta has been a congressman, director of the White House budget office and President Bill Clinton's chief of staff.
Until last month, he ran the CIA, where he helped oversee the May raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He said in Baghdad that developing the plan to "get that son of a bitch" was one of his proudest moments in public service.
At the start of the trip, the former spymaster set an objective of strategically defeating al Qaeda altogether -- an ambitious goal, but one he said was within reach.
A PRIEST AND A RABBI ...
Affable even in searing heat, Panetta braved a sun-drenched, dusty military base in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province on Sunday to watch Afghans show him their mine-sweeping techniques. He talked about his Italian heritage. Shook hands. Asked questions. Sweated.
Panetta, a former Army intelligence officer, tried to connect with U.S. troops by telling a joke about a priest and a rabbi.
"While they were at a boxing match, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross.
"And the rabbi nudged the priest, and said: 'What does that mean?'
"The priest said: 'It doesn't mean a damn thing if he can't fight,'" Panetta said. The troops, he added, knew the importance of fighting for what they believed in.
His first trip hasn't been without hiccups. Some of Panetta's off-the-cuff comments have prompted clarifications, including comments upon arriving in Afghanistan that characterized the U.S. drawdown plan incorrectly.
He also raised eyebrows by appearing to link the Iraq war to the September 11, 2001, attacks, when in fact there is no evidence al Qaeda had operations in Iraq until after the 2003 U.S. invasion. The defense secretary's language seemed reminiscent of the Bush administration's.
But Panetta doesn't seem ready to recede into a defensive crouch. If his predecessor, Robert Gates, was soft-spoken, Panetta is promising to be anything but.
Asked about his colorful style in an interview with NBC News, Panetta simply said: "I'm Italian, what can I tell you?"
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)