Obama, Hollande meet; French president promises different approach to Afghan aid

Correction: Due to an incorrect press pool report, an earlier version of this story misquoted President Francois Hollande’s comments on Iran. The story has been corrected.

New French President Francois Hollande paid his first visit to the White House on Friday, telling President Obama that he would keep his pledge to draw down French combat troops in Afghanistan by year’s end and promising that the French would provide alternative assistance in the war effort.

The leaders spoke for about 20 minutes in the Oval Office, covering issues such as the European debt crisis, Iran and Syria.

Afterward, Obama headed to Camp David to welcome the leaders of eight of the world’s richest countries, including Hollande, for the Group of Eight summit this weekend. Over a two-hour dinner, the leaders discussed a host of global hot spots, devoting the most significant time to Iran, whose negotiators will meet senior Western officials next week in Baghdad for talks on the country’s nuclear program.

A senior U.S. official, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the G-8 leaders were unified in believing that Iran had to take steps to show its program was peaceful and not aimed at building a bomb.

In Obama’s meeting with Hollande, it was Afghanistan that drew the most focus. NATO forces have set a 2014 deadline for turning over prime responsibility for Afghanistan security to local forces there, and Hollande’s accelerated timetable has created some alarm among U.S. officials in advance of a NATO summit that begins Sunday in Chicago.

In brief remarks to reporters in the Oval Office, Hollande said he was committed to providing assistance to Afghan security but not with the fighting.

“I reminded President Obama that I made a promise to the French people to the effect that our combat troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2012,” Hollande said. “That being said, we will continue to support Afghanistan in a different way. We’ll seek a different format. And all of that will be done with good understanding with our allies.”

In past comments, Hollande first said he would withdraw all 3,400 French military personnel but later specified he would pull out only combatants.

Obama said Friday that he and Hollande agreed that “even as we transition out of a combat phase in Afghanistan, that it’s important that we sustain our commitment to helping Afghans build security and continue down the path of development.”

Yet, Obama’s handling of Afghanistan has become an issue in his reelection campaign. Republican challenger Mitt Romney charged Friday that the administration “has taken actions that will only undermine the alliance.” Romney cited the scheduled 10-year, $1.2 trillion across-the-board spending cuts called for in August’s bipartisan debt deal. The cuts are scheduled to take effect in January, and half of them will hit defense spending.

Romney’s statement failed to note that the cuts in defense spending were part of a deal by the White House and leaders of both parties, a sweeping proposal that was approved by nearly three-quarters of House Republicans and six in 10 GOP senators.

“Unfortunately, the Obama administration has taken actions that will only undermine the alliance,” Romney said in a statement. “The U.S. military is facing nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. . . . I will reverse Obama-era military cuts.”

The G-8 meeting will focus on stimulating global growth and containing the fallout from Greece’s financial meltdown.

Economic problems in Europe have sent U.S. stock markets into their worst slump of the year. The Standard & Poor’s 500 is down nearly 8 percent in May, and the Dow Jones industrial average is off more than 6 percent for the month. U.S. and other G-8 officials see Europe as perhaps the chief drag on global economic recovery.

Hollande said he and Obama agreed that Greece, despite its financial crisis, “must stay in the euro zone, and that all of us must do what we can to that effect.”

“We wanted to send a message to that effect to the Greek people,” Hollande said. “Our economies depend on one another. What happens in Europe has an impact on the U.S. and vice versa. So we are related, and the more coherent we are, the more efficient we can be.”

Obama also outlined new steps in the global effort to reduce hunger, announcing $3 billion in private-sector commitments to improve food security in several African nations. In a speech at the Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security, Obama said the pledges from 45 multinational corporations and African companies aim to build on the $22 billion the G-8 nations committed to the effort in 2009.

The president said that although portions of Africa are growing through economic investment, other parts have suffered famine and drought. As the world’s wealthiest nation, the United States has a “moral obligation” to lead the fight against starvation, Obama said.

“When tens of thousand of children die from the agony of starvation like in Somalia, that shows we still have a lot of work to do,” Obama said at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. “It’s unacceptable, an outrage, an affront to who we are.”

The new investments will first target Tanzania, Ghana and Ethiopia because of their record in improving food security. “In Africa and around the world, progress isn’t coming fast enough,” he said. “Economic growth can’t just be for the lucky. It should be broad-based, for everyone.”

In a lighter moment, Obama thanked U2 frontman Bono, a longtime activist fighting poverty in Africa, who was sitting in the front row.

“He was my inspiration for singing at the Apollo,” Obama said, referring to his impromptu performance at the historic Harlem theater in January.

Staff writers Amy Gardner and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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