On First Full Day, Obama Will Dive Into Foreign Policy

By Michael D. Shear and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama will plunge into foreign policy on his first full day in office tomorrow, finally freed from the constraints of tradition that has forced him and his staff to remain muzzled about world affairs during the 78-day transition.

As one of his first actions, Obama plans to name former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as his Middle East envoy, aides said, sending a signal that the new administration intends to move quickly to engage warring Israelis and Palestinians in efforts to secure the peace.

Mitchell's appointment will follow this afternoon's expected Senate vote to confirm Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. And tomorrow afternoon, aides said, Obama will convene a meeting of his National Security Council to launch a reassessment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By the end of the week, Obama plans to issue an executive order to eventually shut down the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to lay out a new process for dealing with about 250 detainees remaining at the prison.

The actions -- to be taken before the entire White House staff has found their desks -- reflect the frenetic activity among Obama's national security advisers that has been taking place behind the scenes since Election Day.

Following his noon inauguration, Obama will spend a brief time at the White House before heading to a series of dinners and inaugural balls. Aides said the work of being president will begin in earnest tomorrow morning.

That work has already been in full view with regard to the economic crisis and other domestic issues. Obama has not been bashful, giving speeches and dispatching aides to work with Congress on an $825 billion stimulus package. He will meet with economic advisers tomorrow and is expected to quickly issue an executive order demanding a new level of transparency and ethics in government.

But the new president will for the first time assume the responsibility for an Iraq war that he opposed from its inception and a series of international crises that will quickly test his mettle as commander in chief.

Publicly, the president-elect has deferred to President Bush and has declined to comment on the recent fighting in the Gaza Strip and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. But privately, he and his aides have been preparing to dramatically reshape the country's foreign policy, starting with the broad conflict zone from Israel to Pakistan.

Last Thursday, in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, Obama criticized Bush for treating Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as "discrete" problems. Under his watch, Obama said, policy in that region will be treated as a single, unified one.

"One of the principles that we'll be operating under is that these things are very much related and that if we have got an integrated approach, we're going to be more effective," he said.

Incoming officials were still debating yesterday how involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis should proceed during the first week. With a fragile Gaza cease-fire in place, the new administration plans to tread gingerly, working behind the scenes while allowing Egyptian and European initiatives to play out before taking a highly visible role.

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