WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama named a pair of veteran envoys on Thursday to be his point men for the Middle East and Afghanistan, cementing a high-risk commitment to grapple with two of the world's most intractable conflicts.
In office little more than 48 hours, Obama traveled Thursday to the State Department, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden and senior aides.
His visit appeared to have two purposes: to show that diplomacy, rather than military force, will be central to his foreign policy; and to signal that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his former presidential primary opponent, has his full support.
Clinton, with the president looking on, announced that former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, who oversaw the peace talks between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland that led to the 1998 Good Friday accords, will be the administration's special envoy for Middle East peace. He'll be entrusted with solving — or at least managing — a conflict that's bedeviled presidents for two generations.
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the 1995 accord that ended the war in Bosnia, was named special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the troubled region that Obama has called the "central front" in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Obama acknowledged the difficulties his new administration faces in both arenas.
"No one doubts the difficulty of the road ahead" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said. Afghanistan faces a "deteriorating situation," said Obama, who plans to send at least 30,000 more U.S. troops to join the 33,000 already there.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama inherits a just-completed Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip that some analysts say has strengthened the radical Islamist group Hamas. Control over the Palestinian areas is split between Hamas in Gaza and the secular Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, vastly complicating peace talks.
Moreover, Israelis are to vote on Feb. 10 for a new prime minister, and some polls, taken in the aftermath of the Gaza conflict, give the lead to Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party who served as prime minister in the late 1990s. Netanyahu is skeptical of peace talks and opposed the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
Obama said that Mitchell, 75, will travel to the Middle East "as soon as possible" to help stabilize a Gaza cease-fire declared separately by Israel and Hamas but already threatened by renewed smuggling though tunnels under the border between Gaza and Egypt.
"It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors," he said.
However, Obama made it clear that he doesn't intend to reverse former president George W. Bush's refusal to talk to Hamas. The group, he said, first must renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept past peace agreements.
Mitchell wrote a 2001 report that called on Palestinians to halt terror attacks — but also said that Israel should stop expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank between Israel and Jordan.
Mitchell made joking reference to the tough task he faces, recalling that in a recent speech in Jerusalem, he noted that the Irish conflict had brewed for 800 years. Afterward, he said, an elderly gentleman came up to him and said: "Ah, such a recent argument. No wonder you settled it."
Holbrooke, 67, has a reputation as a tenacious and ambitious diplomat. His foreign service career stretched from Vietnam in the 1960s to U.S. ambassador to Germany and the United Nations in the Clinton administration.
Clinton said that Holbrooke's job will be to coordinate an effort across the government, including the Defense Department, to achieve U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
More than seven years after the U.S. helped topple the Taliban regime in Kabul, violence is increasing, fueled by opium trafficking and militants who operate freely in a lawless belt along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Holbrooke and Mitchell will report through Clinton to the president, although they may end up communicating directly with Obama at times, State Department and White House officials said. The officials requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
The two men's titles and roles are slightly different. Mitchell is a "special envoy" with the power to negotiate agreements. Holbrooke is a "special representative" who'll represent Obama abroad and coordinate U.S. policy, but not broker peace deals.
Obama's visit to State Department headquarters came less than five hours after Clinton entered the building for the first time as secretary of state, receiving a warm welcome by department employees.
(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this article.)
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