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.
Obama transition officials are acutely aware that the world -- and especially the Israelis and Palestinians -- will be watching to see what tone the new president takes. Sources said the initial emphasis will likely be on stepped-up presidential engagement rather than the specifics of a U.S. role, and empathy and aid toward humanitarian suffering.
The first concrete evidence of a new foreign policy approach will begin with the meeting tomorrow. Obama will instruct the Pentagon to prepare for a stepped-up withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, to be completed within 16 months, and will hear proposals for turning around the deteriorating war in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, will attend, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of Central Command, and Gen. Raymond Odierno, U.S. commander in Iraq, will weigh in via live video connection.
Senior officers began late last year to prepare options for withdrawing from Iraq. Obama has said he will listen carefully to their recommendations before approving a plan that meets his specifications. He has said he expects to maintain a "residual force" in Iraq but has not indicated how many troops will remain over what period.
He has also indicated he will move ahead with existing plans for deployment of as many as 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year.
After returning to the White House following his swearing-in today, Obama is expected to visit the Oval Office, aides said.
A handful of senior staff members will ride in Obama's motorcade to the White House today and enter their offices for the first time as they brace to confront the economy, the Middle East, overseas wars and a raft of domestic policy controversies.
Aides said only about 15 White House staffers were pre-screened to enter the West Wing today. The rest will arrive tomorrow morning, after partying at inaugural balls.
Gates will not attend inaugural festivities, having been designated to stay away from the president and other national leaders in case of a catastrophic event.
Mitchell, who led a Middle East peace commission in 2000, is highly regarded as a negotiator for his work in the successful Northern Ireland peace process. An Obama adviser said the exact timing of Mitchell's appointment will depend on Clinton's confirmation vote, which is scheduled to take place by "unanimous consent" and so cannot be stopped by filibuster.
But a Republican senator could demand a voice vote, thus delaying Clinton's confirmation by another day. "If any Republican holds her over, they are stalling the entire administration from hitting this problem," the adviser said.
The Guantanamo order is being crafted by Obama White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig. Its timing is expected to preempt a Guantanamo trial scheduled to begin Monday under the current "military commission" proceedings.
Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.