January 23, 2009 – Taking on two of his toughest foreign policy challenges, President Barack Obama pledged to find a new course in Afghanistan and to help Israel achieve a broad peace with the Arab world.
On his second full day in office, Obama on Thursday also sought to reverse one of the most contentious policies of the Bush administration by signing an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorist suspects while leaving undecided how to dispose of unresolved war crimes cases there.
The new commander in chief visited the State Department to underscore a major theme of his young administration: that diplomacy will play a more central role in American foreign policy – not just in seeking peace in the Middle East but also in defending the United States against global terrorist threats.
He struck a tone designed to contrast with that of his predecessor, saying a new approach is overdue.
“The inheritance of our young century demands a new era of American leadership,” Obama said. “We must recognize that America’s strength comes not just from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from our enduring values. And for the sake of our national security and the common aspirations of people around the globe, this era has to begin now.”
He said there would be no lasting peace in Afghanistan unless “spheres of opportunity” are expanded for Afghans and their neighbors in Pakistan, where al-Qaida and other extremist groups have found haven.
“This is truly an international challenge of the highest order.” Obama said.
Obama offered no new formula for success in the struggle against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, nor did he commit to a specific increase in U.S. troop strength there. He named former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as a special coordinator of U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In an appearance with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department, Holbrooke said he would be working on the Afghan problem with a range of military leaders, including Gen. David Petraeus, who is responsible for combat operations there, as well as Gen. David McKiernan, the on-the-ground commander in Afghanistan, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman.
“If our resources are mobilized and coordinated and pulled together, we can quadruple, quintuple, multiply by tenfold the effectiveness of our efforts there,” Holbrooke said.
Inheriting a war with no end in sight amid rising Taliban resistance, Obama said his administration was undertaking a “careful review” of policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan and would refocus attention on that region – a veiled reference to getting U.S. troops out of Iraq to enable a bigger commitment in Afghanistan.
He painted a grim picture of Afghanistan’s situation and raised the specter of future al-Qaida attacks.
“The Afghan government has been unable to deliver basic services,” he said. “Al-Qaida and the Taliban strike from bases embedded in rugged tribal terrain along the Pakistani border. And while we have yet to see another attack on our soil since 9/11, al-Qaida terrorists remain at large and remain plotting.”
On the Middle East, Obama struck themes familiar from his predecessor’s administration. He backed Israel’s right to defend itself, decried rocket attacks on Israel by the Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip, lamented “substantial suffering” and loss among civilians in Gaza and favored an international effort to develop a durable and sustainable cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
“Lasting peace requires more than a long cease-fire, and that’s why I will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security,” the president said, referring to Israel and a Palestinian state.
He said George J. Mitchell, the retired Senate majority leader, will be his special envoy to the Middle East to carry forward a U.S. commitment to solidify the cease-fire in Gaza “as well as the effort to help Israel reach a broader peace with the Arab world that recognizes its rightful place in the community of nations.”
Obama stressed the importance of international humanitarian relief for Gaza.
“Relief efforts must be able to reach innocent Palestinians who depend on them,” he said. “The United States will fully support an international donor’s conference to seek short-term humanitarian assistance and long-term reconstruction for the Palestinian economy. This assistance will be provided to and guided by the Palestinian Authority.” He notably mentioned no such role for Hamas.
Osama Hamdan, a Beirut-based spokesman for Hamas, dismissed Obama’s remarks as nothing new.
“Obama is still on the same path as previous leaders and also will make the same mistakes as Bush that ignited the region instead of bringing stability,” Hamdan told Al-Jazeera television.
On her first day at the State Department, Clinton made a round of calls to foreign leaders, including Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
The Jordanian monarch pledged to work with the new administration to launch “serious and effective Mideast peace negotiations to reach the two-state solution as the only means to achieve security and stability in the region,” according to a statement issued by the royal palace in Amman, Jordan.
Clinton’s call to Abdullah followed a call from Obama on Wednesday, who also expressed his commitment to achieving peace between the Arabs and the Israelis, the statement said.
By ordering that the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay be closed by the end of the year, and by closing any remaining CIA secret prisons overseas and banning harsh interrogation practices, Obama said he was signaling that the U.S. would confront global violence without sacrificing “our values and our ideals.”
“First, I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture,” he said. “Second, we will close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and determine how to deal with those who have been held there.”
Congressional Democrats welcomed the moves.
“President Obama is ushering in a new era of smart, strong and principled national security policies, and Congress stands ready to work with him each step of the way,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, outgoing chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
But there was skeptical questioning from GOP leaders.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said it “would be irresponsible to close this terrorist detainee facility” before important questions are resolved. Boehner said these include where will the detainees go when Guantanamo is closed and how will they be secured? The Bush administration was unable to persuade other countries to accept any of the several dozen detainees who have been cleared for repatriation but remain in limbo at Guantanamo. Others there are deemed too dangerous to be released but were not facing war crimes trials because of complications with the evidence against them.