The new president visited the State Department to welcome newly installed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his former political rival. She announced the appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell, a seasoned international diplomat, as envoy to revive moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was named as envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mr. Obama has ordered a full review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, where he has pledged to boost troop numbers, and told generals to take the first steps toward meeting his campaign pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq.
The president cited a “deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and said that region is now “the central front” in the battle against terrorism and extremism.
After ordering the Central Intelligence Agency to close its remaining secret prisons and taking steps to standardize interrogation techniques to avoid the harshest methods, Mr. Obama added Thursday afternoon: “I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture,” he said in a visit to the State Department on his second full day in office.
The announcements came as President Obama acted to tackle a litany of foreign policy challenges bequeathed to him by his predecessor and highlighted during the Illinois Democrat’s run for the White House.
Those include pursuing a policy of much broader engagement overseas than the Bush administration, which was criticized for go-it-alone “cowboy diplomacy,” and refocusing the fight against terrorism away from the unpopular Iraq war and back onto the Afghan conflict.
Mitchell said there’s “no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended” as he pledged his full effort to bring peace and stability to the Middle East.
Obama said he would aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians while also always defending Israel’s “right to defend itself.”
Mitchell said Thursday he’ll be facing a “volatile, complex and dangerous” conflict — one that has become so entrenched, it’s seen by many as unchangeable. But he says President Obama and Clinton aren’t convinced of that.
Mitchell says he saw during his work as an envoy in Northern Ireland that even a conflict that dates hundreds of years can be resolved.
Mitchell may be a tougher and more balanced negotiator than previous U.S. envoys, and this may worry Israelis reliant on a close relationship with Washington, Reuters reported. He has Lebanese as well as Irish roots and released a report in 2001 on Middle East violence that urged both a freeze on Israeli West Bank settlements and Palestinian clampdown on terrorism.
Mr. Obama also urged Egypt to halt arms smuggling into Gaza while calling for border crossings to be opened from Israel to allow in more humanitarian aid under the watch of an “appropriate monitoring regime.”
He also said the U.S. would support an international donors conference to help rebuild the Palestinian economy, adding that the U.S. is committed to seeing “two states living side-by-side” in the future.