By Jim Lobe*
In his first major diplomatic moves since his inauguration, U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday named two accomplished negotiators, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Amb. Richard Holbrooke, as special envoys to deal with the Israel-Arab conflict and "the deteriorating situation" in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively.At a mid-afternoon briefing hosted by his just-confirmed Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Obama, who was accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, said the two appointments underscored his commitment to "actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians as well as Israel and its Arab neighbours" and to urgently address what he called "the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism", in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said Mitchell, who, after retiring from the Senate in 1994, negotiated the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland, will travel to the Middle East "as soon as possible" and "will be fully empowered at the negotiating table..." He also said he was "deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza" but re-iterated the Bush administration's position that it would not deal directly with Hamas, which controls Gaza, unless it recognises Israel's right to exist, renounces violence, and agrees to abide by past accords negotiated between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel. All U.S. humanitarian and reconstruction aid, he said, would be channeled through the Palestinian Authority which holds power only on the West Bank. In naming Holbrooke, who negotiated the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia, as "Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan", Obama described the veteran diplomat's role as "leading our effort to forge and implement a strategic and sustainable approach to this critical region." "There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the al Qaeda and Taliban bases along the border, and there will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said. "This is truly an international challenge of the highest order," he added. The new president had also been expected to appoint former Amb. Dennis Ross, President Bill Clinton's special Middle East envoy, to a third post that would handle U.S. relations with Iran, whose geo-strategic position and increasing regional influence are certain to make it a major player - and possibly a spoiler - in U.S. peace efforts both in the Middle East and in Southwest Asia. But Ross's aggressive campaign for the post, as well as his close association with key groups that make up the so-called "Israel Lobby", appears to have incited a backlash among key Obama advisers, reportedly including Clinton herself, that may have delayed his appointment. According to some sources, its precise terms are still being negotiated. Obama's appearance at the State Department capped a busy foreign policy agenda on his third day in office. Earlier in the day, he signed executive orders that banned the use by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of secret overseas prisons and interrogation techniques that go beyond the non-coercive methods permitted by the Army Field Manual and committing his administration to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within one year. He also ordered a cabinet-level review of what to do with those of the 245 prisoners remaining in detention who are considered a threat to U.S. security or who could face persecution and torture if they are repatriated to their home countries. "The orders that I signed today should send an unmistakable signal that our actions in defence of liberty will be as just as our cause and that we, the people, will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security," he declared at the State Department. "Once again, America's moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership." Obama's appearance at the State Department - which was rarely visited by predecessor George W. Bush - came hours after Clinton, who was confirmed by the Senate in her new position Wednesday, introduced herself to the employees there. His appearance seemed designed to demonstrate his confidence both in his former political rival and in the Foreign Service, whose morale has been badly battered by the dominant role taken by the Pentagon in determining Washington's relationship with the rest of the world under the Bush administration and in its "global war on terror". But the main item of business was the appointment of the two new envoys. Mitchell, whose possible nomination for the Middle East post first surfaced just a few days ago, not only played a key role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, but he also chaired a commission appointed by former President Clinton after the outbreak in September 2000 of the Second Intifada in the occupied territories. The commission published its report in April 2001. It urged the Palestinian Authority, then under President Yassir Arafat, to implement tougher measures to halt Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets, as well as the strict implementation of a freeze on all new settlement activity in the territories and East Jerusalem by the Jewish state. By then, however, Bush had taken office in Washington and proved unwilling to press Israel's new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to abide by the recommendations. "Mitchell showed a real understanding for the narrative of both the Palestinians and the Israelis and, had his recommendations been pursued by the Bush administration, the whole region would look very different today," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator with the New America Foundation here who praised Mitchell's appointment. Indeed, the relatively balanced nature of Mitchell's recommendations earned him the distrust of some in the right-wing leadership of the "Israel Lobby" who quietly lobbied against his appointment, according to knowledgeable sources. The fact that Mitchell's mother was a Lebanese immigrant and that his long-time service and leadership in the Senate gives him considerable clout with his former colleagues in Congress has reportedly added to their unease. In addition, as Special Envoy, it appears that he will report directly to the White House as well as to Clinton. In brief remarks Thursday, Mitchell said that his experience in helping end an 800-year conflict in Northern Ireland convinced him "that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended" - a message, he added, that he had delivered in Jerusalem to an Israeli audience just last month. "I believe that with committed, persevering and patient diplomacy, it can happen in the Middle East," he said. Holbrooke, who made little secret of his hopes of serving as secretary of state if Clinton had won the presidency, had long been rumoured as the most likely candidate for the Afghanistan-Pakistan portfolio, although, when plans to create the post first surfaced, they explicitly included covering India as part of its scope. Over the past year, a consensus among both military and civilian regional experts here has developed that, in order to gain Islamabad's full cooperation in the battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda, its army will have to be reassured about Delhi's intentions. The two countries will need to build greater confidence between them, a task that has been made more challenging in the wake of the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November. Holbrooke, whose aggressive diplomatic methods are legendary, reportedly agrees that India's engagement is indispensable. After vociferous objections by Indian officials concerned that they would come under U.S. pressure to compromise on Kashmir, among other issues, Obama's advisers changed the portfolio to "Afghanistan/Pakistan", but few doubt that Holbrooke will be making frequent trips to Delhi and other regional capitals. *Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.