At Pentagon, Obama Expresses Gratitude, Listens to Concerns

President Barack Obama met with top Pentagon officials for the first time since taking office. The president warned that the U.S. must make tough choices on Iraq and Afghanistan. Video by AP
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009; 11:22 PM

President Obama made another pilgrimage to a key policy outpost yesterday, crossing the Potomac River for the first time since his inauguration to visit the Pentagon, where he met the Joint Chiefs of Staff on their own turf.

The meeting in the secure conference room known as the "Tank" exceeded its allotted 90 minutes because "we kind of lost track of time," Obama said. "My first message was to say thank you," he told reporters after the session.

"And in addition," Obama continued, "it's to say that you -- all of you who are serving in the United States armed forces are going to have my full support. And one of my duties as president is going to be to make sure that you have what you need to accomplish your missions." He said there are "difficult decisions" ahead on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama said they had discussed his concern about the strains on military families and "making sure that the health of our force is always in our sights."

He said they talked about threats, "both short-term and long-term" and "some of the broader global risks that may arise" in addition to the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

Going around the table, each service chief had a chance to address the president about his concerns. One Pentagon official described it as more of a "global strategic discussion" about all areas of the world, without a lengthy focus on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Officers at the meeting described their new commander in chief in glowing terms, saying he had seemed deeply interested in what they had to say, asked pertinent questions and was decisive in expressing his own views.

"This was by no means just another briefing for the Commander-in-Chief," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a statement e-mailed to reporters last night. Obama, he said, "was not simply in receive-mode. He, along with everyone else around the table, was fully engaged in a dynamic discussion about global risks, ways to mitigate them and how to do so in the midst of this economic crisis. I think everyone walked away with the sense that this new relationship got off to a very productive start."

Afterward, the new commander in chief turned to the several dozen officers and enlisted men from the various service branches waiting in the Joint Chief's corridor to shake his hand.

The meeting fulfilled a campaign pledge to sit down with the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen to listen to their concerns and proposals on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the health and size of the armed forces, procurement and other issues. After a visit last week to the State Department and Tuesday's journey to Capitol Hill, the Pentagon trip was designed to symbolize openness and outreach.

As he did during his State Department visit, Obama, accompanied by Vice President Biden, indirectly criticized the administration of former president George W. Bush. "We have for a long time put enormous pressure on our military to carry out a whole set of missions, sometimes not with the sort of strategic support and the use of all aspects of American power, to make sure that they're not carrying the full load," he told reporters after the meeting.

"And that's something that I spoke with the chiefs about and that I intend to -- to change as president of the United States." Obama has pledged to increase the size of both the Army and the Marines, and to expand the work of U.S. diplomats and civilian officials overseas.

At a White House national security meeting on Iraq during his first day in office, Obama told Mullen, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and military commanders that he wants to see their plans for the early combat withdrawal from Iraq he has promised. The military has long been planning for that option, along with others, and yesterday Obama was briefed on various withdrawal timetables.

Some military officials have expressed concerns about the risks of a rapid withdrawal, but most senior officers have said they see no problem in drawing down the troops in the absence of an unanticipated reversal of security gains in Iraq. Obama has indicated he plans to send as many as 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year, increasing the urgency of an Iraq drawdown.

Also yesterday, Obama's choice for director of national intelligence, retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, was approved by the Senate. Blair succeeds Mike McConnell as leader of the federal government's 16 intelligence agencies and Obama's senior intelligence adviser, supervising delivery of the president's daily intelligence briefing.

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