Obama: Still Weeks to Go Before Decision on Afghanistan

Seoul – President Barack Obama said Wednesday he’s still weeks away from deciding how many more U.S. troops to send to Afghanistan and that he’d like to fire officials who’ve leaked news of his deliberations to the news media.

“We have deliberations in the situation room for a reason; we’re making life and death decisions that affect how our troops are able to operate in a theater of war. For people to be releasing info in the course of deliberations is not appropriate,” Obama told CBS’s Chip Reid in an interview from China, one of several he did before heading to Seoul as the last stop in a week-long trip to Asia.

Obama said the leaks were “absolutely” a firing offense, but did not say whether he would try to find out who leaked, and did not differentiate between those who may have leaked from his own White House or from the Pentagon.

He also spoke about the toll of weighing life and death decisions.

“You just don’t have a comparable set of circumstances — with two wars, a financial crisis as bad as anything since 1933, a host of regional issues that have to be dealt with, a pandemic; you have a convergence of factors that have made this a difficult year, not so much for me, but for the American people. And so, absolutely that weighs on me, because whenever I visit Walter Reed or other military hospitals, I see the sacrifice young people are making. That is a heavy weight. But it’s an extraordinary privilege, as well, and I wouldn’t trade my job for anything.”

He stressed anew that whatever he decides, the U.S. strategy depends on an honest Afghan government winning the support and trust of its own people.

“We have a vital interest in making sure that Afghanistan is sufficiently stable, that it can’t infect the entire region with violent extremism,” Obama told CNN’s Ed Henry.

“We also have to make sure that we’ve got an effective partner in Afghanistan. And that’s something that we are examining very closely and presenting some very clear benchmarks for the Afghan government.”

As he spoke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke off from the presidential entourage and headed to Afghanistan.

On the economy, Obama told Fox News that he’s considering new tax breaks to help businesses hire more people but that he also worries that adding more to the debt could help send the economy into a double dip recession.

“There may be some tax provisions that can encourage businesses to hire sooner rather than sitting on the sidelines. So we’re taking a look at those,” Obama told Fox’s Major Garrett.

“I think it is important, though, to recognize if we keep on adding to the debt, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point, people could lose confidence in the U.S. economy in a way that could actually lead to a double-dip recession.”

After finishing the interviews, Obama flew off to South Korea, where he’ll tell leaders he’s committed to protecting them militarily from North Korea and to expanding free trade despite his concerns about the U.S.-Korea agreement now stalled in Congress.

He also will visit U.S. troops before wrapping up his week-long Asia trip on Thursday.

The president landed at Osan Air Base on Wednesday night local time, flying in from Beijing. Earlier, he capped off a three-day China visit with a series of U.S. television network interviews, a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and a visit to the Great Wall.

The president chose a popular spot at the Badaling section of the Great Wall; a sign said more than 150 million visitors and 460 state chiefs and heads of government had been there. His position there on a cold, windy afternoon yielded views of steep climbs, ancient tiled roofs, snow-dusted rocks and the Great Wall snaking off over the horizon.

“It gives you a good perspective on a lot of the day-to-day things,” Obama said. “They don’t amount to much in the scope of history . . . our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it.”

Obama will meet Thursday with Korean President Lee Myung-bak, then fly to Osan for the rally. An official with United States Forces Korea said the rally would include about 1,500 service members, mostly from the Air Force and Army, and some civilians and family members.

On his short stop in Seoul, the president also will thank Koreans for their recent commitment to sending several hundred civilian and military personnel to assist in Afghanistan.

Obama and Lee are expected to focus on two issues: getting North Korea back to the table for Six-Party talks aimed at denuclearizing the totalitarian regime, and discussing ways to resolve concerns over the stalled U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

It was penned in 2007 under the Bush administration but Congress has resisted ratifying it, to the chagrin of Korea and many U.S. business leaders. It would be the most significant trade agreement since NAFTA.

Democrats are objecting to some elements of the trade agreement, saying South Korea must further ease restrictions on U.S. automobiles, beef and other agriculture and manufactured goods before they can sign off. But many business leaders say not ratifying the agreement now will cost the U.S. significantly and allow the European Union and others gain advantage.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said not implementing the agreement could cost the U.S. close to 350,000 jobs and billions of dollars if the EU signs its own deal with Korea in the meantime.

The agreement says roughly 95 percent of consumer and industrial trade between the U.S. and Korea would become duty free within three years and within a decade most other tariffs would end. It would expand the reach of the U.S. financial services sector and government procurement business into Korea.

Last year, Korea represented the eighth largest goods export market for the United States, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; Korea was the ninth largest source of goods imports to the U.S.

The U.S. has a goods trade deficit with Korea of $13.8 billion, but a services trade surplus of $6.2 billion.