Obama and Clinton Announce Envoys to Middle East and South Asia

Jan 22, 2009 1:10pm

ABC News’ Kirit Radia Reports: President Obama made his first trip to the State Department today, only his second day in office, to showcase what he said was his commitment to renewing American diplomacy.

Obama spoke before a crowd of distinguished guests as well as staffers from each bureau and office of the State Department.

"My appearance today, as has been noted, underscores my commitment to the importance of diplomacy and renewing American leadership," President Obama said. "And it gives me an opportunity to thank you for the services that you perform every single day."

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had noted earlier in the day, Obama emphasized that he and Clinton were on the same page, again aiming to dispel the notion of any lingering divisions between the two from last year’s primary.

He also spoke about the executive orders he signed today.

"This morning, I signed three executive orders. First, I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture," Obama said, receiving loud applause from the crowd.

"The world needs to understand that America will be unyielding in its defense of its security and relentless in its pursuit of those who would carry out terrorism or threaten the United States," he added. "And that’s why, in this twilight struggle, we need a durable framework. The orders that I signed today should send an unmistakable signal that our actions in defense of liberty will be just as our cause and that we, the people, will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security. Once again, America’s moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership."

Obama and his new top diplomat Clinton also unveiled what Vice President Joe Biden today called their "two new powerful weapons" — former senator George Mitchell and former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

Mitchell will take on the daunting task of shepherding the limping Middle East peace process. Holbrooke will take on the heavy portfolio of envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. One might wonder who has the tougher road ahead, but both men are experienced negotiators. Mitchell helped broker peace in Northern Ireland and Holbrooke mediated the Dayton Accords that ended violence in Bosnia.

Obama said he would send Mitchell to the Middle East as soon as possible, but later State Department officials could not say when that might happen. The President outlined a position similar to that of the Bush administration, but his position appeared to be more balanced than that of his predecessor and offered additional acknowledgement of Palestinian concerns.

Obama said his team will take an integrated approach to dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan and boost aid for the two countries, as well as resources for Americans working there. He pledged to pursue elements of terror in Afghanistan and across the border.

Asked after his remarks when or if he would appoint an envoy to Iran, Obama said, "We are not having a press conference now, but we will have a comprehensive policy for Iran that we will announce in due course."

In addition to top representatives from each State Department bureau, several foreign policy bigwigs were present for Obama’s visit.

John Negroponte, who just two days ago served as deputy secretary, was made to wait for two hours before the President and new secretary arrived. Other faces in the crowd included Bill Cohen, Vernon Jordan, Strobe Talbott, Martin Indyk and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who introduced Obama’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice at her confirmation hearing last week.

Holbrooke was seen talking to Richard Boucher, who handled South Asia under former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Mitchell was seen talking to Jeffery Feltman, who is serving as acting assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and was previously ambassador to Lebanon.

Before the public event, Obama and Clinton conferred with top advisors over lunch. Holbrooke and Mitchell attended, as did chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, national security advisor Jim Jones, Jones’ deputy Tom Donilon, undersecretary of State for political affairs Bill Burns, Biden, Boucher, and Clinton’s new chief of staff Cheryl Mills. Clinton’s two deputies Jim Steinberg and Jacob Lew, who had their confirmation hearings this morning, were called into the lunch towards the end.

Other notable names were nowhere to be found. There was no sign of Susan Rice, nor of expected assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Wendy Sherman or former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Also no sign of Bill or Chelsea Clinton.

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