Barack Obama's president-elect press conference - 1 December 2008
Please be seated. Good morning, everybody. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving.
Last week, we announced our economic team, which is working as we speak to craft an economic recovery program to create jobs and grow our struggling economy. Today, Vice President-elect Biden and I are pleased to announce our national security team.
The national security challenges we face are just as grave and just as urgent as our economic crisis. We are fighting two wars. Our old conflicts remain unresolved, and newly assertive powers have put strains on the international system. The spread of nuclear weapons raises the peril that the world's deadliest technologies could fall into dangerous hands. Our dependence on foreign oil empowers authoritarian governments and endangers our planet.
America must also be strong at home to be strong abroad. We need to provide education and opportunity to all our citizens, so every American can compete with anyone, anywhere. And our economic power must sustain our military strength, our diplomatic leverage, and our global leadership.
The common thread linking these challenges is the fundamental reality that in the 21st Century our destiny is shared with the world's. From our markets to our security, from our public health to our climate, we must act with that understanding that, now more than ever, we have a stake in what happens across the globe. And as we learned so painfully on 9/11, terror cannot be contained by borders, nor safely provided by oceans alone.
Last week, we were reminded of this threat once again when terrorists took the lives of six Americans among nearly 200 victims in Mumbai. In the world we seek, there is no place for those who kill innocent civilians to advance hateful extremism. This weekend, I told Prime Minister Singh of India that Americans stand with the people of India in this dark time. And I am confident that India's great democracy is more resilient than killers who would tear it down.
And so, in this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century and to seize the opportunities embedded in those challenges. We will strengthen our capacity to defeat our enemies and support our friends. We will renew old alliances and forge new and enduring partnerships. We will show the world once more that America is relentless in the defense of our people, steady in advancing our interests and committed to the ideals that shine as a beacon to the world – democracy and – [audio break] – because American values are America's greatest export to the world.
To succeed, we must pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances and integrates all elements of American power: our military and diplomacy, our intelligence and law enforcement, our economy and the power of our moral example.
The team that we've assembled here today is uniquely suited to do just that. In their past service and plans for the future, these men and women represent all of those elements of American power, and the very best of the American example. They have served in uniform and as diplomats; they have worked as legislators, law enforcement officials and executives. They share my pragmatism about the use of power, and my sense of purpose about America's role as a leader in the world.
I have known Hillary Clinton as a friend, a colleague, a source of counsel and a tough campaign opponent. She possesses an extraordinary intelligence and a remarkable work ethic. I am proud that she will be our next Secretary of State. She is an American of tremendous stature who will have my complete confidence, who knows many of the world's leaders, who will command respect in every capital, and who will clearly have the ability to advance our interests around the world.
Hillary's appointment is a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances. There is much to do – from preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran and North Korea, to seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, to strengthening international institutions. I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton is the right person to lead our State Department, and to work with me in tackling this ambitious foreign policy agenda.
At a time when we face an unprecedented transition amidst two wars, I have asked Secretary Robert Gates to continue as Secretary of Defense, and I'm pleased that he's accepted. Two years ago, he took over the Pentagon at a difficult time. He restored accountability. He won the confidence of military commanders, and the trust of our brave men and women in uniform, as well as their families. He earned the respect of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle for his pragmatism and competence. He knows that we need a sustainable national security strategy, and that includes a bipartisan consensus at home.
As I said throughout the campaign, I will be giving Secretary Gates and our military a new mission as soon as I take office: responsibly ending the war in Iraq through a successful transition to Iraqi control. We will ensure that we have the strategy – and resources – to succeed against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. As Bob said not too long ago, Afghanistan is where the War on Terror began, and it is where it must end.
And going forward, we'll continue to make the investments necessary to strengthen our military and increase our ground forces to defeat the threats of the 21st century.
Eric Holder has the talent and commitment to succeed as Attorney General from his first day on the job, which is even more important in a transition that demands vigilance. He has distinguished himself as a prosecutor, a judge and a senior official, and he is deeply familiar with the law enforcement challenges we face, from terrorism to counterintelligence, from white-collar crime to public corruption. Eric also has the combination of toughness and independence that we need at the Justice Department. Let me be clear: The attorney general serves the American people, and I have every expectation that Eric will protect our people, uphold the public trust and adhere to our Constitution.
Janet Napolitano offers the experience and executive skills we need in the next Secretary of Homeland Security. She has spent her career protecting people, as a U.S. attorney, an attorney general, and as the governor of Arizona. She understands the need for a Department of Homeland Security that has the capacity to help prevent terrorist attacks and respond to catastrophe, be it man-made or natural. Janet assumes this critical role having learned the lessons, some of them painful, of the last several years, from 9/11 to Katrina. She insists on competence and accountability. She knows firsthand the need to have a partner in Washington that works well with state and local governments. She understands as well as anyone the danger of an unsecure border, and she will be a leader who can reform a sprawling department while safeguarding our homeland.
Susan Rice will take on the crucial task of serving as permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations. Susan has been a close and trusted adviser. As in previous administrations, the U.N. ambassador will serve as a member of my Cabinet and an integral member of my team. Her background as a scholar, on the National Security Council and assistant secretary of State will serve our nation well at the United Nations. Susan knows the global challenges we face demand global institutions that work. She shares my belief that the U.N. is an indispensable and imperfect forum. She will carry the message that our commitment to multilateral action must be coupled with a commitment to reform. We need the United Nations to be more effective as a venue for collective action against terror and proliferation, climate change and genocide, poverty and disease.
Finally, I am convinced that General James Jones is uniquely suited to be a strong and skilled national security adviser. Generations of Joneses have served heroically on the battlefield, from the beaches of Tarawa in World War II to Foxtrot Ridge in Viet Nam. Jim's Silver Star is a proud part of that legacy. He will bring to the job the dual experience of serving in uniform and as a diplomat. He has commanded a platoon in battle, served as Supreme Allied Commander in a time of war, and worked on behalf of peace in the Middle East.
Jim is focused on the threats of today and the future. He understands the connection between energy and national security, and has worked on the front lines of global instability, from Kosovo to northern Iraq to Afghanistan. He will advise me and work effectively to integrate our efforts across the government, so that we are effectively using all elements of American power to defeat unconventional threats and promote our values.
I am confident that this team is what we need to make a new beginning for American national security. This morning we met to discuss the situation in Mumbai and some of the challenges that we face in the months and years ahead. In the coming weeks, I will be in close contact with these advisers, who will be working with their counterparts in the Bush administration, to make sure that we are ready to hit the ground running on January 20th. Given the range of threats that we face, and the vulnerability that can be a part of every presidential transition, I hope that we can proceed swiftly for those national security officials who demand confirmation.
We move forward with the humility that comes with knowing that there are brave men and women protecting us on our front lines – diplomats and intelligence officers in dangerous corners of the world; troops serving their second, third, or fourth tours; FBI agents in the field; cops on the beat; prosecutors in our courts; and cargo inspectors at our ports. These selfless Americans, whose names are unknown to most of us, will form the backbone of our effort. If we serve as well as they are serving, we will protect our country and promote our values.
And as we move forward, with respect for America's tradition of a bipartisan national security policy and a commitment to national unity, we have to recall that when it comes to keeping our nation and our people safe, we are not Republicans or Democrats; we are Americans. There's no monopoly of power or wisdom in either party. Together, as one nation, as one people, we can shape our times, instead of being shaped by them. Together, we will meet the challenges of the 21st century, not with fear, but with hope.
Now, before I take questions, I'd like to invite my team to say a few words, and I'm going to start with my dear friend Hillary Clinton.
Clinton: Mr. President-Elect, thank you for this honor. If confirmed, I will give this assignment, your administration and our country my all.
I also want to thank my fellow New Yorkers, who have for eight years given me the joy of a job I love, with the opportunity to work on issues I care about deeply, in a state that I cherish. And you've also helped prepare me well for this new role. After all, New Yorkers aren't afraid to speak their minds, and do so in every language.
Leaving the Senate is very difficult for me, but during the last few weeks, I thought often of our troops, serving bravely under difficult circumstances in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I thought of those other Americans in our Foreign and Civil Services, working hard to promote and protect our interests around the world. And I thought of the daunting tasks ahead for our country: an economy that is reeling, a climate that is warming, and, as we saw with the horrible events in Mumbai, threats that are relentless.
The fate of our nation and the future of our children will be forged in the crucible of these global challenges. America cannot solve these crises without the world, and the world cannot solve them without America. By electing Barack Obama our next president, the American people have demanded not just a new direction at home but a new effort to renew America's standing in the world as a force for positive change.
We know our security, our values, and our interests cannot be protected and advanced by force alone, nor, indeed, by Americans alone. We must pursue vigorous diplomacy using all the tools we can muster to build a future with more partners and fewer adversaries, more opportunities and fewer dangers, for all who seek freedom, peace and prosperity.
America is a place founded on the idea that everyone should have the right to live up to his or her God-given potential, and it is that same ideal that must guide America's purpose in the world today. And while we are determined to defend our freedoms and liberties at all costs, we also reach out to the world again, seeking common cause and higher ground.
And so I believe the best way to continue serving my country is to join President-elect Obama, Vice President-elect Biden, the leaders here and the dedicated public servants of the State Department on behalf of our nation at this defining moment.
President Kennedy once said that engaging the world to meet the threats we face was the greatest adventure of our century. Well, Mr. President-elect, I am proud to join you on what will be a difficult and exciting adventure in this new century. And may God bless you and all who serve with you and our great country.
Gates: I am deeply honored that the president-elect has asked me to continue as secretary of Defense. Mindful that we are engaged in two wars and face other serious challenges at home and around the world, and with a profound sense of personal responsibility to and for our men and women in uniform and their families, I must do my duty as they do theirs. How could I do otherwise?
Serving in this position for nearly two years, and especially the opportunity to lead our brave and dedicated soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Defense civilians, has been the most gratifying experience of my life. I am honored to continue to serve them and our country, and I will be honored to serve President-elect Obama.
Holder: Thank you, President-elect Obama, for the honor that you have bestowed upon me. I look forward to working with you and the members of this national security team assembled here.
The Department of Justice plays a unique role on this team. It is incumbent upon those of us who lead the department to ensure not only that the nation is safe, but also that our laws and traditions are respected. There is not a tension between those two. We can and we must ensure that the American people remain secure and that the great constitutional guarantees that define us as a nation are truly valued.
For example, working with Republicans and Democrats in Congress, should I be confirmed, we look forward to actually structuring policies that are both protective and consistent with who we are as a nation. I also look forward to working with the men and women of the Department of Justice to revitalize the department's efforts in those areas where the department has unique capabilities and responsibilities in keeping our people safe and ensuring fairness and in protecting our environment.
This president-elect and the team you see before you are prepared to meet the challenges that we will confront. But from my experience at the Department of Justice, I know that we cannot be successful if we act alone.
We must never forget that, in many ways, those in state and local law enforcement are our first line of detection and protection against those from foreign shores who would do us harm. We will need to interact with our state and local partners in new, innovative ways to help them solve the other issues that they confront on a daily basis.
National security concerns are not defined only by the challenges created by terrorists abroad but also by criminals in our midst, whether they be criminals located on the street or in a boardroom. We must forge new ties and reestablish old bonds with our state and local partners.
There is much that needs to be done in this new century. I am confident that, working with our president-elect, the people on this stage and the departments that they represent, those of both parties who I know and respect on Capitol Hill, we can keep our nation safe, strong and respected.
It is now my pleasure to introduce Janet Napolitano, a great governor and an old friend.
Napolitano: Thank you, Eric.
President-elect Obama, I am honored by your confidence in me and your support. Your message of change has resonated with the American people, as has the clarity and confidence of your vision of a United States that is safe, secure and effective in the world and at home.
The team you have assembled faces the challenge of protecting our homeland through constant vigilance and relentless work to prevent terrorist attacks. It also will plan carefully and thoroughly so that our domestic response to all hazards is fast, sound, level-headed and effective. Americans deserve no less.
To achieve this high level of performance, it will be my job and the job of this team to hold ourselves and our agencies accountable, to coordinate fully across the spectrum of government agencies, and to ensure that we work hand in hand with state and local governments to share information, secure our borders and keep our country safe. We are a nation that will be proud, prepared and resilient.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve, and I would be remiss if I did not also thank the wonderful people of Arizona. Like Hillary, it is difficult to leave one job for another, but one must go where one can best serve.
It's now my privilege to introduce to you the nominee to be the ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.
Rice: Mr. President-elect, Mr. Vice President-elect, I am deeply honored and grateful for the opportunity to serve you and our great country as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.
I look forward to working with this outstanding bipartisan national security team to implement your visionary agenda, to strengthen our security and renew America's leadership in the world.
I want to take this opportunity to thank my parents, who taught me that no dream is too big to embrace; my husband and our children, Jake and Maris, for their patience, love and sacrifice.
With your election, Mr. President-elect, the American people have signaled to the world that our nation is on the path to change. Now we must fulfill that promise by joining with others to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the 21st century – to prevent conflict, to promote peace, combat terrorism, prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, tackle climate change, end genocide, fight poverty and disease.
All of these goals are vital to America's security, but none can be accomplished by America alone. To enhance our common security, we must invest in our common humanity. And to do so, we need capable partners and far more effective international institutions.
The United Nations was, in major part, America's creation. Mr. President-elect, I share your commitment to rededicate ourselves to the organization and its mission. If confirmed as U.N. ambassador, I will work constructively within the organization to help strengthen its capacities and achieve needed reforms. I can think of no more important time to represent the United States at the United Nations. Mr. President-elect, thank you for the confidence you've placed in me and for the opportunity to serve in this vital mission.
It's now my pleasure to introduce General James Jones.
Jones: Mr. President-elect, Mr. Vice President-elect, members of this tremendous team assembled this morning, I'm deeply humbled to have been asked by the president-elect to serve as national security adviser, especially during the challenging times we currently face. And Mr. President-elect, I deeply appreciate your mentioning my family's contribution to our national security since 1939.
As has been previously mentioned, national security in the 21st century comprises a portfolio which includes all elements of our national power and influence working in coordination and harmony towards the desired goal of keeping our nation safe, helping to make our world a better place, and providing opportunity to live in peace and security for the generations to follow.
I'm deeply humbled, deeply appreciative of this great opportunity. And I'm very proud now to introduce the man who will play a key role in making this come to pass, the vice president-elect, Joe Biden. Mr. Vice President-elect?
Biden: Well, Mr. President, you've assembled quite a team.
And I hope and believe that the American people will come to feel, as I do, that we've brought together one of the most talented national security teams ever assembled, a team prepared to meet the serious challenges we face today and the emerging threats that will confront us tomorrow.
I have worked and – with and admired each of the members of this team – some as far back as the days, Jim, when you were a Marine liaison to the United States Senate – and so we have a – I have a long relationship, as the president does and I do, with each of these folks.
And each – each has a clear understanding of the forces that are shaping this new century and the lives of our fellow Americans: as was mentioned earlier, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the emergence of China, India, Russia, Brazil and the unifying Europe as major powers; the spread of lethal weapons to dangerous countries as well as dangerous groups; the shortage of – and scarcity of energy, water and food; the impact of climate change; economic dislocations and persistent poverty; a technological revolution that sends people, ideas and money around the planet at ever faster speeds; and as was already mentioned, as we witnessed again last week with the terrible events in India, the challenge to democratic nation-states from radical ideologies.
That's just a short list of the forces that are shaping the 21st century. And as has been implied by all of the comments thus far, no one country can control these forces; but more than any other country in the world, we have the ability to affect them, if we use the totality of our strength. In bringing together Senator Clinton, Secretary Gates, Eric Holder, Governor Napolitano, Susan Rice and General Jones, the president-elect has assembled a national security team that is poised, in my view, to recapture the totality of America's strength.
Each member of this team shares the goals and the principles that the president-elect and I have attempted to advance. Each member shares our conviction that strength and wisdom must go hand-in-hand. Each member believes, as we do, that America's security is not a partisan issue – witness the team. Each member understands that America's military might and economic strength must be married to the power of our ideas and our ideals if we are to deal effectively with dealing with the forces of change, some of which I've mentioned, and if we're going to keep this country we love so dearly prosperous and free.
These are extraordinary times.
That is not a flight of fancy or exaggeration; these are extraordinary times. We face extraordinary challenges. But I am, as the president- elect is, optimistic – absolutely optimistic – that this team, with the president-elect at our helm, will see to it that America leads not only by the example of our power but by the power of our example.
And now President-elect Obama is prepared to take your questions. And again, Mr. President-elect, congratulations on assembling what I believe will be a first-class team to lead us into this century.
Obama: Okay. Let's start with Liz.
Elizabeth: Thank you, Mr. President-elect. Would India be justified in going after terrorists responsible for the Mumbai attacks if they were on Pakistani soil?
Obama: Well, first of all, I think it's important to reiterate that our condolences, our thoughts and our prayers go out to the people of India, the families that have been affected; and obviously, we're heart-broken by the deaths of the six Americans that were caught up in this tragedy.
I've spoken to Prime Minister Singh and expressed these concerns to him. An investigation is taking place. I was briefed by Secretary Rice throughout the weekend. She's on her way to the region. We've sent FBI to help on the investigation. And I have – this is one of those times where I have to reiterate there's one president at a time. We're going to be engaged in some very delicate diplomacy in the next several days and weeks. So I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment.
But what I can say unequivocally is that both myself and the team that stands beside me are absolutely committed to eliminating the threat of terrorism, and that is true wherever it is found. We cannot have – we cannot tolerate a world in which innocents are being killed by extremists based on twisted ideologies. And we're going to have to bring the full force of our power – not only military, but also diplomatic, economic and political – to deal with those threats, not only to keep America safe, but also to ensure that peace and prosperity can exist around the world.
So I will be monitoring the situation closely. Thus far, I think the administration has done what's needed in trying to get the details of the situation. And my expectation is that President Zandari (sic\Zardari) of Pakistan, who has already said that he will fully cooperate with the investigation, will follow through with that commitment.
All right. Cara?
Cara: Thank you, Mr. President-elect. You've selected a number of high-profile people for your national security team. How can you ensure that the staff that you are assembling is going to be a smoothly functioning – a smoothly functioning team of rivals, and not a clash of rivals?
Obama: Well, I think you heard Joe mention the fact that many of the people who are standing beside me are people who have worked together before, who have the utmost respect for each other. These are outstanding public servants and outstanding in their various fields of endeavor.
They would not have agreed to join my administration and I would not have asked them to be part of this administration unless we shared a core vision of what's needed to keep the American people safe and to assure prosperity here at home and peace abroad. I think all of us here share the belief that we have to maintain the strongest military on the planet, that we have to support our troops and make sure that they are properly trained, properly equipped, that they are provided with a mission that allows them to succeed.
All of us here also agree that the strength of our military has to be combined with the wisdom and force of our diplomacy, and that we are going to be committed to rebuilding and strengthening alliances around the world to advance American interests and American security.
And so in discussions with this entire team, what I am excited about is a consensus, not only among those of us standing here today, but I think across a broad section of the American people, that now is the time for us to regain American leadership in all its dimensions. And I am very confident that each of these individuals are not going to be leaving the outstanding work that they are currently doing, if they weren't convinced that they could work as an effective team.
One last point I will make: I assembled this team because I'm a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions. I think that's how the best decisions are made. One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views. So I'm going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House.
But understand, I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made.
So, as Harry Truman said, the buck will stop with me. And nobody who's standing here, I think, would have agreed to join this administration unless they had confidence that in fact that vision was one that would help secure the American people and our interests.
Jake: Thank you, Mr. President-elect. During the campaign you said that you thought the U.S. had a right to attack high-value terrorist targets in Pakistan if given actionable intelligence, with or without the Pakistani government's permission.
Two questions on that. One, do you think India has that same right? And two, regarding what Karen just said, some people up there on the stage took issue with your saying that. They have strong opinions about issues ranging from Pakistan to the surge. And while they're all committed to having a successful United States, what private assurances have they given you that they will be able to carry out your vision, even when they strongly disagree with that vision, as some of them have been able to do in the past?
Thank you, sir.
Obama: I think that sovereign nations obviously have a right to protect themselves. Beyond that, I don't want to comment on the specific situation that's taking place in South Asia right now.
I think it is important for us to let the investigators do their jobs and make a determination in terms of who was responsible for carrying out these heinous acts. I can tell you that my administration will remain steadfast in support of India's efforts to catch the perpetrators of this terrible act and bring them to justice. And I expect that the world community will feel the same way.
Now, in terms of my team and carrying out my vision, my policies: As I've said, during campaigns or during the course of election season, differences get magnified. I did not ask for assurances from these individuals that they would agree with me at all times. I think they understand and would not be joining this team unless they understood and were prepared to carry out the decisions that have been made by me after full discussion.
And, you know, most of the people who are standing here are people who I've worked with, and on the broad core vision of where America needs to go, we are in almost complete agreement. There are going to be differences in tactics and different assessments and judgments made. That's what I expect; that's what I welcome. That's why I asked them to join the team.
Baker: Thank you, Mr. President-elect.
You talked about the importance just now of having different voices and robust debate within your administration. But, again, going back to the campaign, you were asked and talked about the qualifications of the – your now – your nominee for secretary of State, and you belittled her travels around the world, equating it to having teas with foreign leaders; and your new White House counsel said that her resume was grossly exaggerated when it came to foreign policy.
I'm wondering whether you could talk about the evolution of your views of her credentials since the spring.
Obama: Look, I'm in – I think this is fun for the press, to try to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign.
Baker: Your quotes, sir.
Obama: No, I understand. And I'm – and you're having fun.
Baker: I'm asking a question.
Obama: But the – and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not – I'm not faulting it.
But look, I think if you look at the statements that Hillary Clinton and I have made outside of the – the heat of a campaign, we share a view that America has to be safe and secure and in order to do that we have to combine military power with strengthened diplomacy. And we have to build and forge stronger alliances around the world, so that we're not carrying the burdens and these challenges by ourselves.
I believe that there's no more effective advocate than Hillary Clinton for that well-rounded view of how we advance American interests. She has served on the Armed Services Committee in the Senate. She knows world leaders around the world. I have had extensive discussions with her both pre-election and post-election about the strategic opportunities that exist out there to strengthen America's posture in the world.
And I think she is going to be a(n) outstanding secretary of State. And if I didn't believe that, I wouldn't have offered her the job. And if she didn't believe that I was equipped to lead this nation at such a difficult time, she would not have accepted. Okay?
John McCormick. Where's John? There you are.
McCormick: Thank you, Mr. President-elect. You're known as a pretty good storyteller. Can you tell us a little bit of a story about how Senator Clinton was selected for this job? Was there a seminal moment? How was the offer extended? Can you give us some detail on how it was accepted and kind of the negotiation process that was involved here? And also, does Secretary Gates meet the requirement for a Republican on the Cabinet, or should we be looking for others as well?
Obama: Well, I mean, I didn't – I didn't – I didn't check his voter registration. Secretary Gates meets the qualification of being an outstanding current secretary of Defense and somebody who is doing everything he can every single day to make sure that our troops are properly equipped and trained and organized in order to succeed at their missions and that their families are cared for.
So I have complete confidence in Secretary Gates being able to carry out his tasks.
And I think the point here is that I didn't go around checking people's political registration. What I was most concerned with was whether or not they can serve the interests of the American people.
With respect to Senator and soon to be Secretary of State Clinton, it was not a lightbulb moment. I have always admired Senator Clinton. We have worked together extensively in the Senate. I have always believed that she is tough and smart and disciplined, and that she shares my core values and the core values of the American people. And so I was always interested, after the primary was over, in finding ways in which we could collaborate.
After the election was over and I began to think about my team, it occurred to me that she could potentially be an outstanding secretary of state. I extended her the offer, and she accepted. I know that's not as juicy a story as you were hoping for, but – but that's all you're going to get, John. Thanks.
[staffer]: Last question.
Obama: Where's Dean? There you are. Hey, Dean.
Dean: Mr. President-elect, I'm wondering, sir, do you still intend to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq in sixteen months after inauguration? And did you discuss that, the possibility of that, with Secretary Gates before selecting him?
Obama: Well, keep in mind what I said during the campaign, Dean – and you were there most of the time. I said that I would remove our combat troops from Iraq in sixteen months, with the understanding that it might be necessary – likely to be necessary – to maintain a residual force to provide potential training, logistical support, to protect our civilians in Iraq.
The SOFA that has been now passed by the Iraqi legislature points us in the right direction. It indicates we are now on a glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq. I will be meeting with not only Secretary Gates but the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders on the ground to make a determination as to how we move that pace – how we proceed in that withdrawal process.
I believe that sixteen months is the right time frame, but, as I've said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders. And my number-one priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase, and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security.
It is a sovereign nation.
What this signals is a transition period in which our mission will be changing. We will have to remain vigilant in making sure that any terrorist elements that remain in Iraq do not become strengthened as a consequence of our drawdown.
But it's also critical that we recognize that the situation in Afghanistan has been worsening, the situation in South Asia as a whole and the safe havens for terrorists that have been established there represent the single most important threat against the American people, and that we're going to have to mobilize our resources and focus our attention on defeating al Qaeda, bin Laden and any other extremist groups that intend to target American citizens.
Okay? Thank you very much, everybody.