President Obama made clear during five wide-ranging television interviews Sunday that he had firmly turned the page on the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policy, which he described as unfocused and “adrift” in Afghanistan as well as outdated in its approach to a possible Iranian missile threat.
Using some of his strongest language to date, Mr. Obama said he inherited failing American policies in Afghanistan and on missile defense, and set about in both cases to initiate a fresh approach.
“When I came in, Afghanistan was adrift because we frankly hadn’t focused on it,” Mr. Obama told Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “My job is to make sure that we get a strategy that focuses on my core goal, which is to dismantle, defeat, destroy al Qaeda and its allies that killed Americans and are still plotting to kill Americans.”
In another repudiation of the Bush years, Mr. Obama defended the Justice Department’s decision to investigate harsh tactics used by CIA agents when questioning terrorism suspects, saying, “Nobody’s above the law.”
When asked about a letter that seven former CIA directors sent Mr. Obama last week that called on him to end the probe, the president said he would not.
“I respect all seven of them. I have absolute respect and have reliance upon a robust CIA,” Mr. Obama said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I’ve also said nobody’s above the law. I don’t want to start getting into the business of squelching investigations.”
The president sat down for interviews with five Sunday morning talk-show hosts primarily to persuade the public to get behind his embattled health care policy. But the interviews careened through a range of domestic and foreign policy topics. Mr. Obama used a considerable portion of the television exposure to defend his evolving war policy in Afghanistan.
Last week, as members of Congress began to ratchet up pressure on Mr. Obama to declare whether he plans to send more American troops into the conflict, the White House took steps to slow down the decision-making process. The president said he is resisting pressure to announce a decision on troop deployments.
Mr. Obama said he has not finished assessing the conditions in Afghanistan, but wants to make sure that more troops will help with the war’s ultimate goal: to isolate and destroy al Qaeda.
“There is a natural inclination to say, ‘If I get more, then I can do more,’ ” Mr. Obama said on CNN. “But right now, the question is - the first question is, are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy?”
The administration has said the public should not expect a quick decision on troop deployment. To help explain the slowdown last week, the White House dispatched senior officials to Capitol Hill to outline what it described as a novel and bluntly honest program to measure progress in the effort to deprive al Qaeda of a base of operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and in the ungoverned areas along the border between those two nations. That evaluation process, officials said, will come before the administration makes firm decisions about whether more troops are needed.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Obama said he wanted a review first and was not interested in continuing the war just to “save face.”
“I have to exercise skepticism any time I send a single young man or woman into harm’s way, because I’m the one that has to answer to their parents if they don’t come home,” the president said.
“We are going to see how this is fitting our core goals” of dismantling, disrupting and destroying al Qaeda, he said. “That’s our goal, and I want to stay focused on that.”
During the interviews, Mr. Obama also touched on other tense international matters. Asked why he didn’t attempt to extract any concessions from Russia in exchange for the decision not to locate missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, Mr. Obama said the decision was not about Russia.
“My task here was not to negotiate with the Russians,” Obama told “Face the Nation.” “The Russians don’t make determinations about what our defense posture is.”
After he took office, Mr. Obama said, he commissioned a review of the missile defense systems by specialists who included Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who had defended placing the batteries on Polish and Czech territory. Mr. Gates “came back to me and said, ‘You know what, given what we know now we actually think this is a better way of doing it.’ ”
Mr. Obama said former President Bill Clinton’s recent mission to North Korea revealed that the nation’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il, was in better physical condition than he expected.
“President Clinton’s assessment was that he’s pretty healthy and in control,” Mr. Obama said of the North Korean leader. “There’s no doubt that this is somebody that I think for a while people thought was slipping away. He’s reasserting himself. He was more concerned about succession when he was sick. Maybe less so now.”
In the midst of the foreign policy concerns, the president said he would not intervene to try to diffuse rising tensions inside the CIA that began last month when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he was appointing an independent counsel to investigate suspected incidents of prisoner abuse.
Seven former CIA directors - Michael V. Hayden, Porter J. Goss, George J. Tenet, John Deutch, R. James Woolsey, William H. Webster and James R. Schlesinger - said they had presumed the incidents of suspected abuse had already been reviewed by the Justice Department under the Bush administration.
“If criminal investigations closed by career prosecutors during one administration can so easily be reopened at the direction of political appointees in the next, declinations of prosecution will be rendered meaningless,” the former directors wrote.
They urged Mr. Obama to reverse Mr. Holder’s Aug. 24 decision to reopen the investigation.
Mr. Obama said Sunday that he did not want a “witch hunt.”