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?

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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.