Obama, Clinton Announce Special Envoys

On Hillary Clinton's first day at the State Department, the secretary appeared with President Obama and Vice President Biden to announce the appointment of special envoys to two troubled areas: Former Sen. George Mitchell to the Middle East and former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to South Asia.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama said during the campaign that he would seek to improve America's standing in the world, and he spent yesterday addressing several front-burner issues. In a moment, we'll get more details on the new president's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. First, we'll hear about his visit to the State Department, where Hillary Clinton is in charge. Together, they named a pair of high-profile envoys to deal with some of the most vexing problems in the world. As NPR's Michelle Kelemen reports, the announcements reflected an administration that intends to put more emphasis on diplomacy.

MICHELLE KELEMEN: Fresh from her Senate confirmation and from a rousing welcome at the State Department, Hillary Clinton hosted President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and many other dignitaries to stress what she's been calling a new, smart-power approach to foreign policy. She singled out two areas in need of robust diplomacy: the Middle East and South Asia.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Secretary HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (U.S. Department of State, Barack Obama Administration): We know that anything short of relentless diplomatic efforts will fail to produce a lasting, sustainable peace in either place. That is why the president and I have decided to name a special envoy for Middle East peace, and a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton and President Obama are putting former Senator George Mitchell in the lead of promoting Arab-Israeli peace. Richard Holbrooke, best known for negotiating a peace deal in Bosnia during the Clinton administration, is to work on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He called it a daunting task, saying the U.S. and its partners are fighting a ruthless and determined enemy in Afghanistan.

Mr. RICHARD HOLBROOKE (Special Envoy, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Barack Obama Administration): And across the border lurks the greater enemies still, the people who committed the atrocities of September 11th, 2001.

KELEMEN: The new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, spoke about the difficulties that lie ahead in his assignment, but he says he learned a lot negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended.

Mr. GEORGE MITCHELL (Special Envoy, Middle East, Barack Obama Administration): Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. I believe deeply that with committed, persevering and patient diplomacy, it can happen in the Middle East.

KELEMEN: The announcement of Mitchell is winning praise from many Middle East watchers, including Sam Lewis, a former ambassador to Israel, who said in an Israel Policy Forum conference call that Mitchell is a superb choice.

Former Ambassador SAMUEL LEWIS (Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel): Not just because of his record in Ireland, but because of his temperament and the fact that he has a remarkable degree of balance and persistence - and thick skin, I might say.

KELEMEN: Another veteran diplomat, now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Aaron David Miller, adds that it's a choice that buys the Obama administration some time.

Dr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center): The fact is there is no Israeli/Palestinian agreement ready. There is no Israel/Syrian agreement ready. And Mitchell's appointment suggests a commitment, or a statement of intent, that is designed to show that yes, I am serious, we're going to work this issue...

KELEMEN: Miller, who has advised six secretaries of state on the Middle East, says it's unusual for the secretary to subcontract out such big issues early on. So, he said, Clinton and President Obama will have to manage all the players well.

Dr. MILLER: Because the stakes for America are too high to allow bureaucratic tensions and egos to undermine what could be a fresh, new and effective foreign policy.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton tried to play up the team atmosphere of the new administration when she walked in to the State Department yesterday morning to a cheering crowd of about 1,000 employees.

Sec. CLINTON: This is a team, and you are the members of that team. We are not any longer going to tolerate the kind of divisiveness that has paralyzed and undermined our ability to get things done for America.

KELEMEN: Hillary Clinton seemed to push all the right buttons for State Department employees, many of whom felt sidelined in the Bush administration. She promised to make sure diplomacy and development are right up there with defense as the pillars of America's foreign policy. Michelle Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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