By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 9, 2009 - President Barack Obama said tonight the most sobering moment of his nascent presidency has been signing letters to families of fallen troops. "It reminds you of the responsibilities that you carry in this office and the consequences of decisions that you make," Obama said in his first presidential news conference on prime-time television.
His comment came in response to a question about whether he would reverse a Pentagon policy banning media coverage of deceased servicemembers' coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base, Del.
"We are in the process of reviewing those policies in conversations with the Department of Defense," he said. "I don't want to give you an answer now before I've evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved."
Obama said the question was timely, given reports of four U.S. troops killed in Iraq today. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families," he said.
The president said his meeting last week with families of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack victims served as a reminder of the U.S. mission to root out terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan.
"This is a situation in which a region served as the base to launch an attack that killed 3,000 Americans," he said. "And this past week I met with families of those who were lost in 9/11 -- a reminder of the costs of allowing those safe havens to exist."
Obama said the U.S. must work smartly, effectively and consistently to prevent extremists from operating in Afghanistan and near the border in Pakistan's federally administered tribal area, or FATA.
The president said political reconciliation is not progressing in Afghanistan as it has in Iraq, which held a relatively peaceful provincial election Jan. 31.
"You do not see that yet in Afghanistan," he said. "They've got elections coming up, but effectively the national government seems very detached from what's going on in the surrounding community.
"In addition, you've got the Taliban and al-Qaida operating in the FATA and these border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan," he continued. "And what we haven't seen is the kind of concerted effort to root out those safe havens that would ultimately make our mission successful."
Obama said top officials are conducting a thorough review of Afghanistan. He declined to a give a timeline for a U.S. troop withdrawal from the country, but added: "I'm not going to allow al-Qaeda or bin Laden to operate with impunity planning attacks on the U.S. homeland."
Obama said one goal of Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, who is currently traveling in the region, is to deliver to Pakistan the message that they are endangered by terrorist activity in the FATA. Obama said Holbrooke also will encourage a regional approach to targeting safe havens there.
"It's not acceptable for Pakistan or for us to have folks who, with impunity, will kill innocent men, women and children," Obama said.
On Iran, the president said the United States will be "looking for openings" to engage diplomatically over coming months.
"My expectation is, in the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face to face, [discussing] diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction," he said.
"There's been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it's not going to happen overnight," he added.
The president said Iranian actions over many years have been unhelpful in promoting peace and prosperity regionally and globally. He cited attacks, financing of Hamas and Hezbollah -- which the U.S. considers terrorist organizations -- bellicose language toward Israel and the country's development or pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
"All of those things create the possibility of destabilizing the region and are not only contrary to our interests, but I think are contrary to the interests of international peace," he said.
Obama said his appointment of foreign Maine Sen. George Mitchell as U.S. envoy to the Middle East and comments he has made since taking office last month indicate the United States' desire to deal with the region differently.
"Now it's time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently as well and recognize that even as it is has some rights as a member of the international community, with those rights come responsibilities," he said.