Barack Obama photo

Interview with Jim Lehrer on PBS' the "News Hour"

February 27, 2009

LEHRER: Mr. President, welcome.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much for having me, Jim.

LEHRER: You have just been with 2,000 U.S. Marines. Some have been in harm's way, some are about to go in harm's way -- Iraq or Afghanistan -- under orders from you as the commander in chief. Was this difficult for you this morning?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it wasn't difficult because my main message was, number one, thank you. And the easiest thing for me to do is to express the extraordinary gratitude that I think all Americans feel for young men and women who are serving in our armed forces. And the second was to be very clear about our plans in Iraq, and that we are going to bring this war to an end.

But I will tell you that the most sobering things that I do as president relate to the deployment of these young men and women. Signing letters of those who have fallen in battle -- it is a constant reminder of how critical these decisions are and the importance of the commander in chief, Congress -- all of us who are in positions of power -- to make sure that we have thought through these decisions free of politics and we are doing what's necessary for the safety and security of the American people.

LEHRER: These specific Marines that were in this hall that you were talking to, as you said, you said in your speech that some of these kids are going to be going to Afghanistan soon as part of the --

THE PRESIDENT: That's exactly right.

LEHRER: And you also said in your speech that it's -- one of the lessons of Iraq is that there are clearly defined goals. What are the goals for Afghanistan right now?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't think that they're clear enough, that's part of the problem. We've seen a sense of drift in the mission in Afghanistan, and that's why I've ordered a head-to-toe, soup-to-nuts review of our approach in Afghanistan.

Now, I can articulate some very clear, minimal goals in Afghanistan, and that is that we make sure that it's not a safe haven for al Qaeda, they are not able to launch attacks of the sort that happened on 9/11 against the American homeland or American interest. How we achieve that initial goal, what kinds of strategies and tactics we need to put in place, I don't think that we've thought it through, and we haven't used the entire arsenal of American power.

We've been thinking very militarily, but we haven't been as effective in thinking diplomatically; we haven't been thinking effectively around the development side of the equation -- you know, what are we doing to replace poppy crops for Afghans that allow them to support themselves?

Obviously, we haven't been thinking regionally, recognizing that Afghanistan is actually an Afghanistan/Pakistan problem, because right now the militants, the extremists who are attacking U.S. troops are often times coming over the border from Pakistan.

So that's why we've assigned an envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to work comprehensively in the region, and this review that we're talking about should be completed by the middle of next month. I will then be reporting to the American people and Congress about how exactly we are going to be moving forward in Afghanistan.

LEHRER: As you know, Mr. President, there's a traditional language for these kinds of conflicts, and its victory, or its loss -- you win a war or you lose a war. Is there a victory definition for Afghanistan now or is that part of your thinking at this moment?

THE PRESIDENT: I think there are achievable goals in Afghanistan, and the achievable goal is to make sure it's not a safe haven for terrorists, to make sure that the Afghan people are able to determine their own fate.

One of the things that I think we have to communicate in Afghanistan is that we have no interest or aspiration to be there over the long term. There's a long history, as you know, in Afghanistan of rebuffing what is seen as an occupying force, and we have to be mindful of that history as we think about our strategy.

Our goal in the region is to keep the American people safe. And I think that the more we can accomplish that through diplomacy, and the more we can accomplish that by partnering with actors in the region, rather than simply applying U.S. military forces, the better off we're going to be.

But I don't want to pre-judge this review. That's why I've asked -- we're looking at a wide range of viewpoints that are being brought together, and a set of recommendations will be provided to me shortly.

LEHRER: But in a kind of non-policy, public point of view, this all came about -- we're in Afghanistan because of 9/11.

THE PRESIDENT: That's exactly right.

LEHRER: And that was almost eight years ago.


LEHRER: So why are we still there?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, my assessment is that we took our eye off the ball. I mean Iraq was an, obviously, enormous diversion of resources and attention.

Now, we've had a long debate about the wisdom of having gone into Iraq in the first place, I don't want to re-litigate that. But just objectively, there's no doubt that had we stayed more focused on Afghanistan and the problems there -- and had we thought through more effectively Pakistan and its role in this whole process of dealing with extremists -- that we would probably be further along now than we are. But, you know, that's history.

We now have to move forward. It's my job to come up with the best possible approach given some of these mistakes that have been made, and the fact that the situation right now has deteriorated badly in Afghanistan.

LEHRER: But unlike you're -- what you talked about today, of course, is that a, quote, "exit" from Iraq, you're not even there yet in terms of when -- if and when and how -- we might exit from Afghanistan, if I hear you correctly?

THE PRESIDENT: I think, until we have a clear strategy, we're not going to have a clear exit strategy. And my goal is to get U.S. troops home as quickly as possible without leaving a situation that allows for potential terrorist attacks against the United States.

Keep in mind something that is important, and that is, Afghanistan is not a U.S. mission; it's a NATO mission. And one of the things that I think has been lost is the sense of international partnership in dealing with the problem of international terrorism.

Part of our goal is, when I go to the NATO summit in April, to have a conversation with our NATO allies -- many of whom have put troops into Afghanistan, have made enormous sacrifices, have lost their own young men and women in the battle there -- to figure out how do we coordinate more effectively to move the ball forward.

LEHRER: On Iraq specifically, you drew applause and shouts from some of the Marines when you went through what was accomplished in Iraq -- particularly Saddam Hussein fell, you went through a couple of other things.

In general, should the Iraq mission now be seen as, quote, "successful"?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think what we can say unequivocally is that our military succeeded in every mission that was given to them. They consistently performed above and beyond expectations under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

I don't think that we can rightly say that the strategy cooked up by our civilian leadership -- with respect to either going in in the first place or how the war was managed -- was a success. But I think that we can say without equivocation that our military was successful. And if we get it right over the next few months and years, that there is the strong possibility that we can leave Iraq as a stable, peaceful partner in the region.

LEHRER: Bottom line question, of course, Mr. President is, what was accomplished, has it been worth the 4,200 American lives, 35,000 wounded -- more than maybe 100,000 Iraqis who have been killed, to accomplish what has been accomplished?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I don't want to look backwards. As you know, I opposed this war, I did not think it was the right decision, but I don't want to in any way diminish the enormous sacrifices that have been made by our men and women in uniform.

I think the fact that Saddam Hussein is gone is a good thing. I think the fact that Iraq has now carried out a series of successful elections with diminished violence each time -- I think that's a good thing.

A lot of the ultimate outcome in Iraq now is going to depend on how the political issues that have dogged Iraq for a very long time get resolved. And frankly we have not made the kind of progress over the last year to two years despite the surge -- we have not made the progress that needs to be made on the hydrocarbons law, the oil law, on making determinations about central government versus provincial government power.

There are a whole host of political issues between the various factions and between Sunni, Shi'a and Kurd in Iraq that still have to be worked on and that's why I emphasized it in the speech. We've got to redouble our efforts when it comes to the diplomatic side if we're going to be successful.

LEHRER: You've caught some heat as you know, Mr. President, today from some of your Democratic colleagues in Congress saying wait a minute, we're not supposed to have 50,000 troops still there or whatever. What is your -- the criticism being that the withdrawal is too slow and it isn't as dramatic as they had expected, your colleagues, your supporters had expected. How do you answer that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, what I would say that is that they maybe weren't paying attention to what I said during the campaign. I said that we were going to take 16 months to withdraw our combat troops from Iraq. We are now taking 18 months rather than 16. I said that we would have a residual force -- a transition force that could continue to stand up Iraqi security forces, provide them logistical support and training and also make sure that we are protecting U.S. civilian and military personnel.

I said that we would have a counterterrorism capacity to make sure that al Qaeda or other extremist organizations did not try to take advantage of a diminished U.S. presence there. So everything that I said I would do during the campaign I am now doing.

Obviously because of consultation with commanders on the ground -- something I also said we would do -- you know, there are some modifications to the plan. But this is basically the thrust that I have been talking about for several years. I think it is a responsible solution. It arrives at -- it was arrived at out of close consultation with commanders on the ground -- the CENTCOM Commander David Petraeus, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary Gates -- but also my secretary of state, my national security adviser, individuals who, like me, opposed the idea of going into Iraq in the first place. And yet we were able to arrive at a very strong consensus that has the support of our military brass, the folks on the ground, as well as our diplomats and our analysts. I think it is the right way to go.

LEHRER: You're not the least bit uneasy over the fact as John McCain and John Boehner -- the Republican leader of the House -- have praised your plan while the Democrats are criticizing it?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I don't -- I don't make these decisions based on polls or popularity. I make the decisions based on what I think is best. This is consistent with what I said during the campaign. The fact -- if anything I think people should be interested in the fact that there's been a movement in the direction of what I thought was going to be the right plan in the first place.

LEHRER: Go back to the first -- to where we began, Mr. President, where you are, the setting here and you're with some young people and some older people as well who --

THE PRESIDENT: One thing that's always striking when you talk to these extraordinary young people, they are awfully young, and they look younger to me every year.

LEHRER: Yeah. Yeah, but the issue of making the decision to put them in harm's way, and when you ran for president it was discussed off and on all the time, of course, during the campaign, but now you're actually having to do it. How difficult is it?

I don't mean -- I asked it in a different way to begin with, but just as -- in general, how difficult is it for you so far?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, it will keep you up at night. I feel an enormous obligation to get it right, which is why I say the last thing I'm thinking about is either applause or cat calls from the public or, you know, the cable stations as I'm making these decisions.

I feel a profound obligation to these troops and their families to make sure that the decisions I'm making are the best possible decisions -- given the best possible information that I have -- having canvassed the widest range of viewpoints in order to keep the American people safe.

And I think that's what we've done with respect to our Iraq decision. I think that's what we're aiming for with respect to our strategy in Afghanistan. And I hope that I never start feeling as if these decisions are easy. They should never be easy. I should always lose a little sleep when I'm making these decisions.

LEHRER: In a more general way, it's slightly more than five weeks now that you've been President of the United States, and we've been talking about Iraq and Afghanistan. We could go on and on and also talk about a lot of other things.

THE PRESIDENT: I've got a full plate.

LEHRER: You got a full plate.


LEHRER: Do you feel burdened by the full plate?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that we are at an extraordinary moment that is full of peril but full of possibility. And I think that's the time you want to be president. I think there's a sense that right now, we are having to make some very big decisions that will help determine the direction of this country -- and in ways large and small the direction of the world -- for the next generation.

And I won't lie to you. I wish that they weren't all having to be made at once. It would nice to be able to stage them on one another.


THE PRESIDENT: Let's -- you know, we'll take, you know, the economy first and then we'll take Afghanistan after that and then Iraq after that and Iran after that and, you know, the banking system somewhere out there -- autos, you know. It would be wonderful if we didn't have all the planes in the air at the same time.

But having said that, I meant what I said in my joint address to Congress. I think that there's -- there's something about this country where hard times, big challenges bring out the best in us. This is when the political system starts to move effectively. This is when people start getting out of the petty and the trivial debates. This is when the public starts paying attention in ways that they -- you know, when things are going well, you know, they've got better things to do than to think about public policy. You know, so I am -- I am invigorated by the challenges.

But look, we've got a lot of big stuff ahead of us. Not every decision we're going to make is going to be perfect; not every plan that we lay out is going to work out exactly as we intended. But if we get the big stuff right then, you know, the ship of state is a big tanker and, you know, you can't simply reverse direction on the economy or any of these things overnight, but you can start moving in a better trajectory so that five years, 10 years down the road you can say, you know, what, because of good decisions now, our kids are safer, more secure, more prosperous, more unified than they were before.

LEHRER: And in a word, you feel like you're clicking now?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I feel like our team is making very good decisions based on the best possible information we have and the best options available to us. And that's all I can ask of myself or of them is that we're making the best decisions based on what is good for the American people.

And, you know, this is a human enterprise. It's not going to be flawless, but I think that -- I think it's fair to say that you haven't seen an administration who's had to come in and juggle this much stuff of such large import this quickly. And we're getting a lot of stuff done under that kind of pressure and I'm very proud of the team and what we've done so far.

LEHRER: Mr. President, thank you very much.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you -- great to talk to you, Jim.

Barack Obama, Interview with Jim Lehrer on PBS' the "News Hour" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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