Pentagon chief: 'We're within an inch of war almost every day’

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered a blunt assessment of the threats facing the United States on Wednesday, saying the potential for another war breaking out remains high in places like North Korea.

“We’re within an inch of war almost every day in that part of the world,” Panetta said in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, in response to a question about the threats in the Korean Peninsula. “And we just have to be very careful about what we say and what we do.”

Blitzer then asked Panetta, who joined with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for an interview during the secretaries’ NATO meeting in Brussels, whether the North Korean threat kept him up at night.

“Unfortunately, these days there’s a helluva lot that keeps me awake,” Panetta responded, listing Iran, Syria, the Middle East, cyber warfare and weapons of mass destruction as other insomnia-inducing issues.

Panetta responded to charges from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that “incompetence” from the Obama administration led North Korea to launch its failed long-range missile last week.

“I think it’s pretty clear this administration took a firm stand with regard to provocative behavior North Korea engaged in,” Panetta said. "We made clear they should not do it, and we condemned the action even though it was not successful.”

Panetta would not say what action the Obama administration would take if North Korea now conducts its third nuclear test, as is suspected. It would be “another provocation,” the defense secretary said, and would “worsen” the U.S.-North Korea relationship.

On the violence in Syria, Clinton said the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is “running out of time.”

“I don’t think we’re halfway through this story yet,” she said. “We’re going to see a lot happen over the next few weeks, and it truly is up to the Assad regime. They’re the ones that hold it in their power to end the violence.”

Clinton said the Obama administration was waiting to see whether or not Assad was implementing the peace plan from UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and upholding a cease-fire, which appears to be faltering.

Panetta said the Obama administration is not getting involved in Syria militarily unless the international community backs involvement, which is what happened in Libya. In Syria, however, Russia and China remain opposed to the UN Security Council taking stronger action than the peace plan. 

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