Obama says decision on Afghanistan troops still weeks away

SEOUL, South Korea — President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he was still weeks away from deciding how many more U.S. troops to send to Afghanistan and that he'd like to fire officials who'd leaked details of his deliberations to the news media.

"We have deliberations in the situation room for a reason; we're making life and death decisions that affect how our troops are able to operate in a theater of war. For people to be releasing info in the course of deliberations is not appropriate," Obama told CBS in an interview from China, one of several he did before he headed to Seoul as the last stop in a week-long trip to Asia.

Obama said the leaks were "absolutely" a firing offense, but he didn't say whether he'd try to find out who leaked, and didn't differentiate among those who may have leaked from the White House, from the Pentagon or from other agencies. The most recent battle of leaks erupted Nov. 7, after McClatchy reported that Obama was leaning toward sending more than 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

Obama also spoke about the toll of weighing life and death decisions.

"You just don't have a comparable set of circumstances: with two wars, a financial crisis as bad as anything since 1933, a host of regional issues that have to be dealt with, a pandemic. You have a convergence of factors that have made this a difficult year, not so much for me but for the American people. And so absolutely that weighs on me, because whenever I visit Walter Reed or other military hospitals, I see the sacrifice young people are making. That is a heavy weight. But it's an extraordinary privilege, as well, and I wouldn't trade my job for anything."

He stressed anew that whatever he decides, the U.S. strategy depends on an honest Afghan government winning the support and trust of its people.

"We have a vital interest in making sure that Afghanistan is sufficiently stable, that it can't infect the entire region with violent extremism," Obama told CNN.

"We also have to make sure that we've got an effective partner in Afghanistan, and that's something that we are examining very closely and presenting some very clear benchmarks for the Afghan government."

As he spoke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke off from the presidential entourage and headed to Afghanistan, where U.S. and European officials are publicly pressing President Hamid Karzai to root out corruption.

On the economy, Obama told Fox News that he's considering new tax breaks to help businesses hire more people, but that he also worries that adding more to the national debt could help send the economy into a double-dip recession.

"There may be some tax provisions that can encourage businesses to hire sooner rather than sitting on the sidelines. So we're taking a look at those," he said. "I think it is important, though, to recognize if we keep on adding to the debt, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point, people could lose confidence in the U.S. economy in a way that could actually lead to a double-dip recession."

After the interviews, Obama flew to South Korea, where he'll tell leaders he's committed to protecting them militarily from North Korea and to expanding free trade despite his concerns about the U.S.-South Korea agreement stalled in Congress.

He also will visit American troops before wrapping up his week-long Asia trip Thursday.

The president landed at Osan Air Base on Wednesday night local time, flying in from Beijing. Earlier, he capped a three-day China visit by meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao and visiting the Great Wall.

The president chose a popular spot at the Badaling section of the Great Wall; a sign said that more than 150 million visitors and 460 chiefs of state and heads of government had been there. His position on a cold, windy afternoon yielded views of steep climbs, ancient tiled roofs, snow-dusted rocks and the Great Wall snaking off over the horizon.

"It gives you a good perspective on a lot of the day-to-day things," Obama said. "They don't amount to much in the scope of history. . . . Our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it."

Obama will meet Thursday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, then return to Osan for the rally with American troops. An official with U.S. Forces Korea said the rally would comprise about 1,500 American service members, mostly from the Air Force and Army, and some civilians and family members.

On his short stop in Seoul, the president also will thank South Koreans for their recent commitment to sending several hundred civilian and military personnel to assist in Afghanistan.

Obama and Lee are expected to focus on two issues: getting North Korea back to the table for six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the totalitarian regime, and discussing ways to resolve concerns over the stalled U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement.

It was penned in 2007 under the Bush administration, but Congress has resisted ratifying it, to the chagrin of South Korea and many U.S. business leaders. It would be the most significant trade pact since the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Democrats are objecting to some elements of the agreement, saying that South Korea must ease restrictions further on U.S. automobiles, beef and other goods before they can sign off. However, many business leaders say that not ratifying the pact now will cost the U.S. significantly and allow the European Union and others to gain advantage.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said that not implementing the agreement could cost the U.S. nearly 350,000 jobs and billions of dollars if the EU signs its own deal with South Korea in the meantime.

The pact says that roughly 95 percent of merchandise trade between the U.S. and South Korea would become duty-free within three years, and most other tariffs would end within a decade. It would expand the reach of the U.S. financial services sector and government procurement business into Korea.

Last year, South Korea was the eighth-largest merchandise export market for the United States, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and was the ninth largest source of U.S. imports.

The U.S. has a merchandise trade deficit with South Korea of $13.8 billion, but a services trade surplus of $6.2 billion.


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