Mitchell appointed as Middle East envoy


PRESIDENT Barack Obama took the first steps towards reshaping US foreign policy with his announcement yesterday of the appointment of former senator George Mitchell as a special envoy for Arab-Israeli issues, and Richard Holbrooke as special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The president and vice-president Joe Biden joined Hillary Clinton for an event in the Department of State – where she had earlier taken up her position as secretary of state – for the announcement of the appointments.

Mr Mitchell said that his experience in helping to broker the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland had persuaded him that no human conflict is incapable of resolution. “There recently, long-time enemies came together to form a powersharing government to bring to an end the ancient conflict known as the Troubles,” he said.

“This was almost 800 years after Britain began its domination of Ireland, 86 years after the partition of Ireland, 38 years after the British army began its most recent mission in Ireland, 11 years after the peace talks began and nine years after a peace agreement was signed. In the negotiations which led to that agreement, we had 700 days of failure and one day of success. For most of the time progress was non-existent or very slow.”

Mr Mitchell said that conflicts are “created, conducted and sustained” by human beings, and they can be ended by human beings. “I saw it happen in Northern Ireland, although admittedly it took a very long time,” he said.

The president had earlier issued executive orders banning harsh interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration, telling the CIA to shut down its secret prisons around the world and ordering the closure of the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin welcomed the decision on Guantánamo and review of US policy on extraordinary rendition of prisoners. “I warmly commend President Obama for his determination to close Guantánamo in the shortest possible time. It is highly significant that he has moved on this issue so quickly.”

Mrs Clinton, on meeting her staff in the Department of State, promised “robust diplomacy” and “effective development” to improve the standing of the US overseas. “At the heart of smart power are smart people, and you are those people,” she said. “And you are the ones that we will count on and turn to for the advice and counsel, the expertise and experience to make good on the promises of this new administration.”

The state department was sidelined to some extent during the Bush administration, as the Pentagon, the national security council and the office of the vice-president became more powerful. On the new White House website, Mr Obama promises to restore the primacy of diplomacy – pledging, for example, “tough and direct diplomacy with Iran, without preconditions”.

Mr Obama signed four executive orders on the treatment of detainees, including one ordering the closure of Guantánamo within a year. The president ordered a review of each Guantánamo inmate’s case to determine whether it was possible to transfer the detainees to a third country. “If transfer is not approved, a second review will determine whether prosecution is possible and in what forum,” the order said.

“If there are detainees who cannot be transferred or prosecuted, the review will examine the lawful options for dealing with them.” Mr Obama has ordered an immediate halt to prosecutions at Guantánamo and instructed the camp’s authorities to ensure that, from now on, conditions there comply with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions “and all other applicable laws”.

A panel will review whether the CIA needs interrogation powers now permitted by military guidelines but Mr Obama said the US “can abide by a rule that says ‘We don’t torture’.”