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Obama mixes up Iraq, Afghanistan on YouTube

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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YouTube users interview President Obama
  • Questions on Iraq, Afghanistan result in momentary stumble by President Obama
  • Obama answers questions submitted by viewers
  • Other top administration officials also take part in public outreach events

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama experienced a rare speaking stumble Thursday, mixing up Iraq and Afghanistan when responding in a YouTube interview to questions challenging the wars in those countries.

The president twice referred to Afghanistan when clearly talking about the situation in Iraq.

He said that the United States would withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and that combat operations there had ended, which actually describes the situation and policy for Iraq.

It was unclear whether Obama realized his mistake. He then correctly stated the situation in Afghanistan, saying the United States would start withdrawing some forces beginning in July, with the goal of handing over full security responsibilities to the Afghan government in 2014.

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The 40-minute interview was part of a White House communications offensive in support of this week's State of the Union speech, with a series of events in which top administration officials spoke directly to Americans about administration policies set out in the address Tuesday night.

Questions for the president ranged from the personal, such as what he would give the first lady as a Valentine's Day gift, to policy issues asking how his administration will pay for its proposals, why prescription drugs are so expensive and how he justified the toll of the two wars in terms of money and loss of life.

On the wars that his administration inherited, Obama said that the goal in Afghanistan was to dismantle the terrorism network there that directed the September 11 attacks and that progress was being made. He said he opposed the Iraq war and pointed out efforts by his administration to withdraw all combat troops by the end of the year.

It was during his response that he mixed up the two countries.

In other answers, Obama repeated many of his proposals from the State of the Union address when asked about his plans for education, economic growth and immigration reform.

Asked where the money would come from to pay for programs such as his Race to the Top education reform plan, Obama mentioned the proposed five-year freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending, which he said would save the government $400 billion.

The freeze would result in spending cuts, including programs he favored such as community action grants that help spur economic development, Obama said. At the same time, he said, the cuts would be targeted -- made with a scalpel as opposed to a chainsaw, as he put it -- and would allow for increased spending in critical areas such as education and innovation.

Asked about the lower test scores of Hispanic and other minority students, Obama spoke of his education proposals, including Race to the Top, which rewards states with successful programs by providing increased funding.

Noting that the U.S. populations of Hispanic, African-American and Asian students were increasing, Obama said that failing to properly educate them and close the "achievement gaps" would be growing problem.

A question on clean energy provided the president with the opportunity to reiterate his call for increased spending on research and development, as well as setting standards so that specific portions of energy come from clean energy sources.

When asked about possibly legalizing drugs to save law enforcement costs and reduce drug-related crime, Obama said he opposed outright legalization but favored treating the issue as a public health and safety problem. The goal should be to shrink the demand for drugs by changing attitudes instead of being too strongly focused on arresting and imprisoning people, Obama said.

In addition, Obama called for more resources for programs to help people dealing with drug addiction and other problems, noting that it can take six months to get into drug treatment programs in some cities.

Obama spent Wednesday visiting solar and wind energy companies in Wisconsin to tout his push for increased government investment in clean energy as a growth industry of the future, a major theme of his speech the night before.

Along with Obama's YouTube interview, Vice President Joe Biden answered questions from the public in a Yahoo interview Thursday, and four top administration officials participated in online discussions answering questions submitted via Facebook, the online social network.

Such access to top policymakers -- the president, vice president and top aides including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee and Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough -- is generally unheard of and reflects the administration's desire to ensure its messages reach the country, particularly younger Americans who are a core constituency.

"I think it's a way of bringing people a little closer to decisions that get made here in Washington," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday when asked about the outreach.

The first event took place Tuesday night after the State of the Union speech, when a panel of White House officials -- National Economic Council Deputy Director Brian Deese, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy Roberto Rodriguez and Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes -- answered questions submitted via Twitter, Facebook and a live audience of young adults.

In the hourlong session, which can be seen in a video posted at, questions involved Obama's economic proposals, policy issues such as education and clean energy, Sudan, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, North Korea and other subjects.

Some questions were challenging, such as one that expressed skepticism at restoring the United States as a world leader in education, but in general, the inquiries indicated that participants were supporters of the administration instead of ideological opponents.

When asked whether the United States would remain engaged in Sudan after the recent secession referendum in Southern Sudan, Rhodes called the question a good one for the forum of young people.

He noted that the issue "simply would not have the attention it has" without pressure from young people, nongovernment organizations, religious groups and others.

"We see it as a kind of bottom-up activism that can help advance a more responsible foreign policy of the United States" while also helping the people of Sudan, Rhodes said.