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SecDef to NATO: We may not always be there

Secretary Panetta gave NATO a gentler, more politically calibrated version of his predecessor's speech on Wednesday, warning the alliance that it can't count on U.S. support for future operations. Here's how AP's Lolita Baldor, travelling with Panetta, laid it down:

Just three months into the job, Panetta stopped short of the blistering critique delivered by his predecessor, Robert Gates, in June, when Gates questioned the alliance's viability and bluntly warned that it faces a "dim, if not dismal, future." But Panetta echoed many of the same frustrations.

"There are legitimate questions about whether, if present trends continue, NATO will again be able to sustain the kind of operations that we have seen in Libya and Afghanistan without the United States taking on even more of the burden," Panetta told the Brussels-based organization Carnegie Europe. "It would be a tragic outcome if the alliance shed the very capabilities that allowed it to successfully conduct these operations."

It's very telling that Panetta chose to give a softer but similar presentation to NATO -- so it wan't just Gates being cranky as he made for the exit; instead, the same worries carried over to his successor. In fact, if anything today the future of the Euro-alliance looks even bleaker than it did, as all of Gates' concerns now are in addition to the looming Greek debt crisis, which threatens to spring the trap door under the already anemic world economy.

The key, Panetta seemed to say, will be working all this out when NATO has its next big meeting in Chicago. Per Baldor:

"We are at a critical moment for our defense partnership," Panetta warned, stressing the need for other nations to share the burden. "While these warnings have been acknowledged, growing fiscal pressures on both sides of the Atlantic, I fear, have eroded the political will to do something about them."

Looking ahead to the planned NATO summit in Chicago in May, Panetta said the allies must pool their resources and hammer out multinational solutions to face the next generation of threats.

"I am convinced that we do not have to choose between fiscal security and national security," he said. "But achieving that goal will test the very future of leadership throughout NATO."

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