via Times Online
President Obama placed the Middle East at the forefront of his first hours in office yesterday as he sought to make good on his promise of “ushering in a new era of peace”.
In a flurry of telephone calls from the Oval Office, he reached out to leaders in the region and vowed to engage immediately in pursuit of a permanent Arab-Israeli settlement.
The spokesman for President Abbas revealed that Mr Obama had told the Palestinian leader that their conversation was his first with a foreign statesman since taking office. Mr Obama also spoke to President Mubarak of Egypt, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, and King Abdullah of Jordan.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said that the talks with Middle East leaders underlined a “commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term”. He added: “In the aftermath of the Gaza conflict, he emphasised his determination to work to help consolidate the ceasefire by establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from rearming, and facilitating, in partnership with the Palestinian Authority, a major reconstruction effort.”
In the next few days Mr Obama is expected to appoint a Middle East peace envoy, widely thought to be the former senator George Mitchell, who performed a similar role in Ireland under President Clinton.
Even before he got to work yesterday, the new Administration had halted all military trials of terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Mr Obama is expected to sign an executive order today that will close the camp within a year “to further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice”. Judges have agreed to stop the trials of five Guantánamo detainees who have been charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks.
In the White House situation room yesterday, Mr Obama prepared to fulfil another campaign promise by ordering military commanders to redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. He summoned Robert Gates, his Defence Secretary, along with Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David Petraeus, the top military commander in the Middle East, and other members of the national security council. General Ray Odierno and General David McKiernan, the commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, participated in the meeting via video link.
Although Mr Obama promised to listen to his military chiefs — some of whom are known to have reservations about the withdrawal timetable — he said that he was looking to develop a comprehensive policy for Iraq and Afghanistan. Afterwards, he said: “I asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military draw-down from Iraq.”
The President, who has also said that he will engage in direct, if tough, diplomacy with Iran, used his inaugural speech on Tuesday to offer Muslim countries a “new way forward”. People and governments around the world should know that “America is ready to lead once more”, he added.
“We’re going to have a lot of work,” Mr Obama said on Tuesday night. “We’ll be making a series of announcements, both on domestic and on foreign policy, that I think will be critical for us to act swiftly on.”
His high-velocity first day in office also involved Mr Obama retaking his presidential oath in private after constitutional experts argued that the fumbles during the inauguration ceremony had cast doubt on its legitimacy. He also met his economic team yesterday to discuss the financial crisis which, he said, is the issue “we are most focused on”.
Timothy Geithner, his nomination for Treasury Secretary, has yet to be confirmed with Republicans voicing fresh anger over his failure to pay taxes on time. “These were avoidable mistakes,” Mr Geithner told senators yesterday, “but they were unintentional.”
At lunchtime, Mr Obama gathered his senior White House staff together to witness him signing an executive order that brings in new ethical rules over lobbying and freedom of information, as well as freezing their salaries.
“What an opportunity we have to change this country,” he said, as he reminded them of the vast crowd “as far as the eye could see” that had watched his inauguration on Tuesday.
“They were there because they believe this is a moment of great change in America, a time for reinvigorating our democracy and remaking our country. They have entrusted all of us with a great responsibility.”