President Obama, on a visit to the State Department during his second day in office, has named two U.S. diplomatic veterans as special envoys on key foreign policy issues. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell will be special envoy for Middle East peace efforts and former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke will be a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The appointments, announced at a gathering of senior State Department officials, constitute a major departure by the Obama team from the Bush administration, which largely shunned the concept of special envoys in favor of diplomacy by the secretary of state and U.S. ambassadors.
It also underscores the urgency felt by the new administration in pressing for a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in the wake of the Gaza conflict, and in dealing with the complex war in Afghanistan fueled by extremists across the border in Pakistan.
President Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by his side, said his administration will "actively and aggressively" seek a lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. He said George Mitchell, a key figure in achieving a settlement of the Northern Ireland conflict, will travel to the Middle East soon in pursuit of a durable and sustained peace.
He reiterated America's commitment to Israel's security and its right to defend itself in the face of Hamas rocket fire, which he said should not be tolerated by Israelis or Palestinians.
But President Obama also stressed U.S. concerns about humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip and a commitment to help rebuild the devastated territory.
"Just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so too is a future without hope for the Palestinians," he said. "I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days, and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water and basic medical care."
The president said he is calling on Richard Holbrooke - who brokered the 1990s Dayton Peace Accords among warring factions in Bosnia-Herzegovina - to implement a strategic and sustainable approach to the shared problems of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama called it the "central front" of the struggle against terrorism and extremism.
"There, as in the Middle East, we must understand that we cannot deal with our problems in isolation," he said. "There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the al-Qaida and Taliban bases along the border. And there will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Holbrooke said he plans an early trip to the region to assess the military and political situation, where he said U.S. forces are engaged against a ruthless enemy without scruples in Afghanistan - the Taliban - while facing an even greater enemy - al-Qaida terrorists - across the border in Pakistan.
The former assistant secretary of state added that no one can say the Afghan war is going well, but he said he is confident that resources being devoted to it can be better used.
"If our resources are mobilized and coordinated and pulled together, we can quadruple, quintuple, multiply ten-fold, the effectiveness of our efforts there," Holbrooke said.
Former Senator Mitchell said he doesn't under-estimate the difficulties of settling the Middle East dispute. But he noted that the Northern Ireland conflict had an 800-year history, yet was none-the-less resolved.
"From my experience there is formed my conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended," he saidl. "Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings."
Middle East analysts say Mitchell, who is of Lebanese extraction, can be expected to pursue a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute than did the Bush administration, which strongly backed Israel. He authored a highly regarded report on the region in 2001 that called for a freeze on Israeli settlement-building and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism.