Washington Extra – Combat ready?

February 2, 2012

The Obama administration is known to be methodical when it comes to its messaging. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s declaration that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan might end next year seems to have caught people here and overseas by surprise.

Today, everyone from Panetta to White House spokesman Jay Carney to NATO allies tried to tamp down notions that a major policy shift was underway. But many were still scratching their head about whether there is now a new U.S. timetable for winding down a war that is over a decade old.

One senior NATO official summed up the potential for confusion with a mind-bending quote: “He (Panetta) said the combat role will come to an end but he also said combat will continue. And that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

So the question is: Did Panetta jump the gun or is this part of a carefully crafted messaging plan, right out of the Obama administration’s playbook?

Here are our top stories from Washington…

Deficits, the US election and politics of fear

The top contenders in the presidential race seem to have a simple plan for the gaping budget deficit: use it to strike fear into the hearts of voters. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney says President Obama is such a big spender that he would trigger a Greece-style crisis if re-elected. Obama says Republican candidates would balance the budget by slashing social programs older Americans rely on to pay their medical bills. Polls suggest both approaches resonate with voters.

For more of this insight story by Jason Lange and Laura MacInnis, read here.

Romney plays Trump card in Las Vegas

Real estate mogul Donald Trump re-injected himself and his wealth into the Republican presidential race by endorsing Mitt Romney, a day after the front-runner stumbled with remarks suggesting he was indifferent to America’s poor. Trump, himself an on-again/off-again Republican presidential candidate and former member of the party, said he would back Romney in the race for the nomination to oppose President Obama. “I was very impressed by the last two debates,” he said in Las Vegas.

For more of this story by Ros Krasny and Sam Youngman, read here.

Bernanke defends low rate policy for weak economy

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke defended the central bank’s policies against charges from Republican lawmakers they risked sparking inflation, saying the economy still needs plenty of support. The Fed chief was repeatedly thrown on the defensive as he parried critiques from Republican lawmakers over the Fed’s zero interest rate policy, its focus on employment and its policy prescriptions for housing. Paul Ryan, the committee’s chairman, took issue with the central bank’s new 2 percent inflation target, saying a policy statement last week suggested it would be willing to tolerate higher inflation nonetheless.

For more of this story by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa, read here.

Plan to scale back U.S. Afghan role worries, surprises

U.S. forces will stop taking a lead role in combat operations in Afghanistan next year but continue to support Afghan combat missions under a plan announced by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that worried Afghans and surprised allies. Panetta told reporters the United States would remain “combat-ready” as it winds down its longest war but would largely shift to a train-and-assist role as Afghan forces take over responsibility for security ahead of a 2014 deadline for full Afghan control.

For more of this story by David Alexander and David Brunnstrom, read here.

U.S. seeks to play down Panetta’s Afghan comments

The Obama administration played down Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s comments that the United States could end its combat role in Afghanistan next year, remarks that surprised allies in Europe and Kabul, and US lawmakers.

For more of this story by Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria, read here.

U.S. and allies exploring prospects for Assad exile

The United States, European governments and Arab states have begun discussing the possibility of exile for Bashar al-Assad despite skepticism the defiant Syrian president is ready to consider such an offer, Western officials said. While talks have not progressed far and there is no real sense that Assad’s fall is imminent, one said as many as three countries were willing to take him as a way to bring an end to Syria’s bloody crisis.

For more of this exclusive story by Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick, read here.

Republicans push to stop automatic spending cuts

The military would be spared from automatic spending cuts set for next year under a proposal some top Senate Republicans offered that instead would save money by reducing the federal workforce. Senators John McCain, Jon Kyl and four others offered legislation that would eliminate the first installment of $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over a decade. The legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate, led by Democrats likely to oppose the federal work force cuts.

For more of this story by Donna Smith, read here.

Obama says draws from Christian faith to craft policy

President Obama sought to emphasize his Christian faith, telling a key voting bloc that he prays every morning and has crafted elements of his economic policies in line with Jesus’ teachings. Obama told a National Prayer Breakfast that the challenges facing the United States required him to listen to God, avoid “phony religiosity,” and pursue “bold action.”

For more of this story by Laura MacInnis, read here.

Komen charity denies abortion pressure in funding shift

Breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure denied political pressure from anti-abortion groups had anything to do with its decision to cut off funding for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, trying to contain a crisis between the two leading women’s health groups. In video statement posted on its website and YouTube, the Komen foundation said critics have mischaracterized its decision. “We will never bow to political pressure,” Komen founder Nancy Brinker said in the video.

For more of this story by David Morgan, read here.

MF Global risk officer says ousted after warnings

The former chief risk officer at MF Global who raised red flags about the firm’s aggressive trading bets told lawmakers that his warnings contributed to the firm’s decision to let him go in early 2011. Michael Roseman, who was ousted in January 2011 from the now-bankrupt futures brokerage, said he rang alarm bells about the firm’s exposure to European sovereign debt a year before the firm collapsed in late October of 2011.

For more of this story by Sarah N. Lynch and Karey Wutkowski, read here.

U.S. Republicans, attorney general fight over gun sting

Republicans in the House of Representatives said senior Justice Department officials should have known about the controversial tactics that led to a bungled operation to track guns to Mexico . The Obama administration has been under fire for almost a year about “Fast and Furious”. The program was meant to determine how guns were being smuggled from Arizona to violent drug cartels, but the guns were not fully tracked.

For more of this story by Jeremy Pelofsky, read here.

Senate panel backs tough pressure on Iran

Banking transactions with Iran and financing for its oil shipments could come under tougher scrutiny after a bipartisan sanctions bill easily passed a key Senate Committee. The Senate Banking Committee passed a bill that lawmakers hope will further eat into revenues they say Tehran is using to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies seeking nuclear arms.

For more of this story by Roberta Rampton, read here.

From elsewhere…

The French breast implant scandal

In March 2010, a pair of health inspectors acting on a tip paid a three-day visit to a factory in this hilly town on the Mediterranean coast. The factory was the headquarters of Poly Implant Prothese, a leading international maker of breast implants founded by French entrepreneur Jean-Claude Mas. The inspectors found something odd: six discarded plastic containers of Silopren, a liquid silicone designed for industrial, not medical use, lined up along the outside wall of the production site. A week later, gendarmes descended on the plant. Mas skipped out just ahead of them, eluding interrogation for nearly eight months, but his game was up. In the nearly two years since, the cheap silicone used in PIP’s fake breasts has continued to leach into women’s bodies.

For more of this special report, read here.

For more stories from our Washington correspondents visit www.reuters.com and stay informed.

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (Panetta at Pentagon briefing on Jan. 26, 2012)

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/