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“I reminded President Obama that I made a promise to the French people to the effect that our combat troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2012,” Hollande said.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.”