WASHINGTON -- While he said he is "gravely concerned" about the situation in Pakistan, U.S. President Barack Obama says he is confident in the security of the country's nuclear arsenal and believes Pakistan's Army is beginning to realize that homegrown militants -- and not India -- pose the biggest threat to the country's stability.
Obama spoke to reporters on his 100th day in office at a news conference that also included remarks about the use of waterboarding, the situation in Iraq, and concerns over swine flu.
Asked whether he could assure the American people that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure and will not fall into the hands of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, he replied that the country’s stockpile -- which contains some 60 to 100 weapons -- is in the hands of the Pakistani Army and as long as it remains there, he is confident they are in safe.
He chose his words carefully and said nothing that might inflame the tense situation in that country, which appears increasingly engulfed by an insurgency. But he was clear about the danger he sees.
"I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan," Obama said. "Not because I think that they're immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan; more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile.”
Obama refused to answer a hypothetical question about whether the United States military would ever consider it necessary to wrest control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal from the country’s military. He said the Pakistani Army is beginning to come around to the U.S. view on the threat posed by the internal insurgency.
"On the military side, you’re starting to see some recognition, just in the last few days, that the obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan, has been misguided. And that their biggest threat right now comes internally," Obama said. "And you’re starting to see the Pakistani military take much more seriously the armed threat from militant extremists.”
Obama also said the practice of waterboarding suspected terrorists, which was authorized by the Bush administration, was torture and did not reflect American values.
Since deciding to release a series of internal government memos detailing the legal justification offered by the Bush administration for using so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" on foreign detainees, Obama has been criticized by former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans.
'Right Thing To Do'
At the news conference, Obama said that any information obtained in circumstances where torture was used could have been obtained using other methods.
“What I've said -- and I will repeat -- is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture," Obama said. "I don't think that's just my opinion. That's the opinion of many who've examined the topic. And that's why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do.”
In his opening statement, Obama recapped some of his major accomplishments so far and said progress has been made on the economic recovery, but more remains to be done.
"I think we're off to a good start, but it's just a start. I'm proud of what we've achieved, but I'm not content. I'm pleased with our progress, but I'm not satisfied," he said. "Millions of Americans are still without jobs and homes, and more will be lost before this recession is over.”
Earlier in the day, Congress advanced Obama’s $3.4 trillion budget for 2010, and Obama thanked lawmakers for their confidence in his vision. He called on them to enact his broad domestic agenda, which includes a new energy policy, health-care reform, and strict regulations on the financial industry.
In the area of foreign policy, Obama said he had begun to fulfill his pledge to confront challenges in ways that emphasize engagement and a multilateral approach. In three months as president, Obama has visited nine countries and held meetings with 44 heads of state.
“I also campaigned on the promise that I would change the direction of our nation's foreign policy. And we've begun to do that as well," he said. "We've begun to end the war in Iraq. And we forged, with our NATO allies, a new strategy to target Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have rejected the false choice between our security and our ideals, by closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and banning torture without exception. And we've renewed our diplomatic efforts, to deal with challenges ranging from the global economic crisis to the spread of nuclear weapons.“
More Work Needs To Be Done
On Iraq, Obama was asked whether the recent spike in violence might affect his plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops by August of next year.
He replied that despite a few “spectacular” bombings, the level of violence has remained relatively low. He said the political system in the country “is holding and functioning,” but that more work needs to be done before next summer’s transfer. He named as priorities isolating any remaining elements of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and reaching an equitable settlement of the division of oil profits among Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'a.
Obama used the opportunity of his national television appearance to reassure Americans that the government is taking all necessary steps to prepare for a possible swine flu pandemic, as the World Health Organization has recommended. He said he has asked Congress for $1.5 billion in emergency funding to monitor the virus and increase the supply of antiviral drugs.
And he offered some common-sense advice: Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough, and stay home from work if you’re sick.