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Panetta, Obama clashed over arming Syrian rebels

Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's two top defense officials publicly acknowledged a policy disagreement with the White House over whether to send U.S. arms to the rebels in Syria.

In congressional testimony yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is retiring, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they supported a plan last year by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus to provide weapons to the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

Their comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee came in response to questions from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who have been leading critics of the administration for failing to do more to help the heavily outgunned Syrian rebels.

"We did," said Dempsey, answering McCain about whether they supported the Clinton-Petraeus plan.

"That was our position," Panetta told Graham. "I do want to say, senator, that obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president's decision to make it nonlethal."

This means the president "overruled the senior leaders of his own national security team, who were in unanimous agreement that America needs to take greater action to change the military balance of power in Syria," McCain said later.

According to two U.S. officials who were involved in the debate over Syria policy, the White House national security staff opposed providing military aid or training to any Syrian rebel groups, in part because they feared it might fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, and also because they thought it would undercut Obama's election-year message that he was extricating the United States from costly overseas military ventures.

Testimony Thursday on two other matters:

BENGHAZI. The U.S. military is determined to position small, quick-reaction forces closer to global crises after the rapid assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya last September kept U.S. armed forces from responding in time to save four Americans. Panetta and Dempsey said they moved quickly to deploy commando teams from Spain and Central Europe last Sept. 11, the chaotic day of the assault on the U.S. installation in Benghazi, but the first military unit didn't arrive until 15 hours after the first of two attacks.

DEFENSE BUDGET. The United States is at risk of becoming a second-rate power if automatic budget cuts go into effect, plunging the U.S. armed forces into the most significant readiness crisis they've faced in more than a decade, Panetta warned. But Panetta also assured lawmakers the Pentagon would take the steps necessary to deal with possible threats in the Persian Gulf region after he approved the Navy's request to halve its aircraft carrier presence in the area. With AP

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