Obama 'profoundly impressed' with U.S. servicemembers
April 30, 2009
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama stood at the White House’s East Room podium for his third primetime televised press conference in as many months, this time marking his 100th day in office.
The young president said that when he began his campaign more than two years ago, he never anticipated such a long list of major crises to hit the country at the same time.
Among his top concerns remain the management of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well the as economic crisis, saving America’s automakers and banks from collapse, and now handling a swine flu outbreak.
“I think we're off to a good start, but it's just a start. I'm proud of what we've achieved, but I'm not content. I'm pleased with our progress, but I'm not satisfied,” he said.
And while his administration is working to address them all – at one point Obama reminded Americans to keep their hands washed and cover their mouths when they cough – the president asked the public to have patience with his plans.
“So we have a lot of work left to do. It’s work that will take time, and it will take effort. But the United States of America, I believe, will see a better day.”
Obama addressed a number of military concerns including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the torture of suspected terrorists or insurgents while held in U.S. custody.
But when asked, tongue-in-cheek, to list what he was “enchanted” by after first 100 days as president, the commander-in-chief said: the men and women serving in the U.S. military.
“I will tell you that when I – when I meet our servicemen and women enchanted is probably not the word I would use,” he said, drawing hearty laughs.
“But I am so profoundly impressed and grateful to them for what they do. They're really good at their job. They are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices on our behalf. They do so without complaint. They are fiercely loyal to this country.
“And, you know, the more I interact with our servicemen and women, from the top brass down to the lowliest private, I'm just — I'm grateful to them,” said Obama.
Diving into a host of global security concerns, the president said he did not feel the recent surge in bombings in Iraq would alter his plan to draw down U.S. combat troops.
“The political system is holding and functioning in Iraq,” he said. “Part of the reason why I called for a gradual withdrawal as opposed to a precipitous one was precisely because more work needs to be done on the political side to further isolate whatever remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq still exists."
Additionally, Obama left open the possibility of greater direct U.S. military involvement in helping Pakistan fight off the Taliban, which has attempted to extend its control beyond a key region close to the country’s capital, Islamabad.
“We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests, in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don't end up having a nuclear-armed militant state,” the president said.
The U.S. had been criticized harshly in the Pakistani press for the use of unmanned drones within the country’s territory.
But Obama said he was more worried about Pakistan’s political frailty rather than its army’s ability to hold off Taliban fighters or secure its nuclear arsenal.
“We've got strong military-to-military consultation and cooperation. I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not because I think that they're immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan. I'm more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile and don't seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services: schools, health care, rule of law, [and] a judicial system that works for the majority of the people.
“So we need to help Pakistan help Pakistanis.”
Obama evaded a reporter’s attempt to press him to say whether he believes the previous administration authorized the use of torture.
“I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that the — whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake,” Obama said.
The president defended his decision to release legal memos from the Bush administration that outline the U.S. torture record and its rationale. The technique was used 183 times on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in one month, the memos revealed.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney has called for the release of further memos that he says would show waterboarding produced valuable information from terrorists.
Obama said he has seen the memos and rejected the premise of that argument.
“I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do, not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are,” said Obama.
Making a bold historical connection, the president added that he recently read an article describing how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill rejected using torture on more than 200 British-held detainees during the World War II even while the Germans rained bombs on Londoners.
“… The reason was that Churchill understood, you start taking short-cuts, over time, that corrodes what's — what's best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.”
“When I made the decision to release these memos and when I made the decision to bar these practices, this was based on consultation with my entire national security team, and based on my understanding that ultimately I will be judged as commander-in-chief on how safe I'm keeping the American people,” said Obama.
“That's the responsibility I wake up with and it's the responsibility I go to sleep with. And so I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe. But I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure that we are not taking short cuts that undermine who we are.”
On the government’s role in auto giant Chrysler and General Motors, Obama said, “I would love to get the U.S. government out of the auto business as quickly as possible.”
When asked if the recent defection of Sen. Arlen Specter from the Republican Party was a sign of its demise, Obama demurred.
“You know, politics in America changes very quick. And I'm a big believer that things are never as good as they seem and never as bad as they seem. You're talking to a guy who was 30 points down in the polls during a primary in Iowa. So I never — I don't believe in crystal balls,” he said.
Yet after being asked by the final questioner to describe how involved the government would be in running American corporations, Obama said his plate was full enough.
“But I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy, you know, meddling in the private sector, if — if you could tell me right now that, when I walked into this office that the banks were humming, that autos were selling, and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal.”