For Obama, problem's not just the economy

Grave national-security and foreign-policy issues are crowding President Obama’s agenda as he struggles to repair the nation's economy. 

With the 2012 election looming, Obama is juggling a decision on how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan; a congressional resolution on the mission in Libya; and violence in Syria and Yemen.


All of this comes on the heels of last week’s disappointing unemployment numbers, which served as another signal the economic recovery has stalled.

When asked Monday how Obama is balancing the growing number of national-security issues with economic concerns, White House press secretary Jay Carney noted that while much has been made of the recession Obama inherited, the president also inherited two wars.

“You don’t really have much of a choice when you become president,” Carney said. “These are the two priorities you’re handed, and for good reason.

“The national security of the United States, protecting the people of the United States at home and abroad, and the economic vitality, growth and job creation of the nation … these are the two priorities that the president focuses on every day.”

The dueling priorities came to a head on Friday. On the same day the unemployment numbers came out, the House passed a resolution that forbids the deployment of U.S. ground troops in Libya and requires Obama to provide additional information on the mission within 14 days.

That measure, a warning shot from House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio), was met with resistance from the White House on Monday.

Carney said that congressional accusations are “unhelpful.”

“It is simply incorrect to suggest that we haven’t been informing or consulting with Congress regularly on this important matter, because we have,” he said. “And we believe it is important to consult with Congress on things like this.”

Over the weekend, five U.S. service members were killed in Iraq, where American forces are planning a full exit by the end of the year. Carney said there is no change in the current Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that President George W. Bush agreed to and Obama is following.

But if Iraqi leaders ask for a continued U.S. presence, a request that seems unlikely right now, then Obama would “entertain” whatever is asked, Carney said.

“But as of now, we fully intend to fulfill our obligation under that SOFA and withdraw all our remaining forces,” he said.

And the White House is condemning the violence in Syria and Yemen while walking a tightrope in how far to go in condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or in pushing wounded Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh toward the exit.

Also on the horizon is the July deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Obama said last May he was “confident” troops could begin to leave that country in July of this year.

As of now, he hasn’t decided how many troops he will order out of Afghanistan, Carney said.

The issue did not come up at Monday’s monthly Afghanistan-Pakistan briefing, according to a White House readout.

However, it will likely come up in Congress this week. The president’s nominee to head the Pentagon, CIA Director Leon Panetta, begins his confirmation hearings in the Senate this Thursday.

Both Republicans and Democrats are pushing for significant troop reductions while the Defense Department seems to be pushing for more modest numbers. However, there has been no formal recommendation from Pentagon brass and military commanders. 

Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged for the first time this weekend the upcoming administration review cannot ignore dwindling congressional and public support for the decade-old conflict in Afghanistan.

“I think these are all things the president will have to weigh and those of us advising him will have to weigh as well,” said Gates, who is on his final tour of Afghanistan.

His final major act before retiring at the end of the month will be to make a formal troop-withdrawal recommendation to Obama. It will be based on options under construction by U.S. and NATO commander Gen. David Petraeus, who’s been quiet on what he’ll recommend.

“The president is going to make his decision, as he has said all along, based on conditions on the ground, not whether or not there will be a drawdown or the beginning of a drawdown, but the size and scope and pace of the drawdown,” Carney said.

Carney would not give any hint as to what Obama is thinking as he prepares to make an announcement. When asked to characterize the drawdown, Carney would say only that it will be a “real drawdown.”

“I think … it depends on how you define what ‘modest’ is or ‘significant’ is,” Carney said. “It will be a real drawdown, but it will depend on the conditions on the ground, which he relies on his commanders to inform him about.”

Both liberals and Republicans concerned about the costs of the ongoing war are prepared to criticize any drawdown that doesn’t contain a significant number of troops but could be a symbolic way for Obama to stay true to his word.