President Obama said on Monday that the United States will continue to make heavy use of military drones in Pakistan and Iraq and defended spending on foreign aid, during an unusual “virtual town hall” on Google’s social media site, Google+.
The latest effort by the White House to make full use of all the tools available to get Obama's message out to Americans who may not watch or read mainstream news outlets, the session ranged far afield -- from life-and-death questions of military weaponry to a woman from Fort Worth, Texas, who enlisted the president’s help for her out-of-work husband and then asked if he could “give us a little jig” or “sing for us.”
The president declined to dance or sing, but he did field 23 out of the 133,000 questions sent in by 227,000 users of Google+ and YouTube, according to the White House and Google. The event -- called a “Hangout” by Google+ -- was aired on a video stream on the White House website, YouTube, and Google+’s Hangout page.
It was a homeless veteran in Boston who pressed the president on foreign aid with so many Americans hurting at home. The president twice stressed that much less is spent on foreign aid than most Americans suspect. “We only spend about 1 percent of our budget on foreign aid,” he said. “But it pays off in a lot of ways.” He said helping other countries to improve their economies, avert famine, or stabilize “potentially saves us from having to deal with some military crisis somewhere down the road that could be even more expensive.” He urged the critics to view foreign aid as “part of our overall security strategy.”
Obama conceded the point of the questioner that aid to a country such as Pakistan can be problematic. But he defended it. He said of Pakistan, “there are times when they disappoint us.” He said U.S. relations with Pakistan “have gotten more strained because there are a lot of extremists inside that country and either for lack of capacity or political will, they haven’t taken them all on.” He added, “In some cases they have been very cooperative with us. In other cases, not as much as we want.” He said he is “always trying to find the right balance of making sure that if we’re providing them with aid, they are also providing us with assistance in terms of making our people safer.”
It appeared he gained few converts, though. When the moderator asked for a show of hands of those who still think the United States spends too much on such aid, several of the participants could be seen holding their hands aloft. Obama responded that he understands their frustration, but cast foreign aid as a critical part of the fight against terrorists.
He was also pressed by a man from Brooklyn to justify the heavy use of military drones after the Google+ moderator noted a story in The New York Times reporting outrage in Iraq at the use of surveillance drones, with some in the government there seeing this as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The president suggested that story, which appeared on the front page, was “a little overwritten.”
“The truth of the matter is we’re not engaging in a bunch of drone attacks inside of Iraq,” he said. “There is some surveillance to make sure our embassy compound is protected.” He also disputed a part of the question that blamed the drones for civilian casualties.
“I want to make sure the people understand, actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” he said. “For the most part, they have been very precise precision strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates. And we are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.” He said some critics think that "we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly.” But that is wrong, he said, instead describing it as “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, [and] American bases.”
Taking questions on Google+ is part of the White House strategy to reach out to young Americans in particular. The president has previously done a Twitter town hall, and taken other questions on Facebook and YouTube.
Among other more personal questions he was asked on Monday: how he planned to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary, whether he would play tennis with a California high school student, whether he misses being able to go shopping, and whether he thinks comedians can affect elections.