WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, underscoring a commitment to more aggressive U.S. diplomacy, named two Democratic heavyweights yesterday as administration envoys to two of the world's most troubled regions.
Obama appointed former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, as special envoy to the Middle East and former U.S. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Appearing before an audience of senior diplomats at the State Department, Obama said his administration would "actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace" in the Middle East, though "no one doubts the difficulty of the road ahead."
He said Holbrooke will help seek a regionwide solution in South Asia, but warned that "the situation is perilous and progress will take time."
The appointments came on the day that Hillary Clinton arrived to begin her job as secretary of state. About 1,000 employees cheered as she arrived about 9:15 a.m.
"This is going to be an adventure," she told them. "This is not going to be easy."
Holbrooke, 67, is credited with helping forge the Dayton accords of 1995 that ended the war in Bosnia, and is known as a hard-driving, sometimes abrasive diplomat.
Mitchell, 75, is credited with advancing peace in Northern Ireland as envoy during the Clinton administration, and also headed a commission that looked for ways to end Israeli-Palestinian violence in 2000. He is considered a patient, even-handed negotiator.
Mitchell's is the more politically sensitive appointment. It won praise from many sides, but some conservatives in Israel and among Israel's U.S. supporters expressed concern that Mitchell could choose to exert new pressure on the Israelis. A report by Mitchell's commission in 2001 reportedly annoyed the government of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Former U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis, who recently visited the region, said there is "a lot of nervousness in Israel" about Mitchell. Some have expressed worries over how the Obama administration will view such issues as Israeli security needs and the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Some more dovish pro-Israel groups, including Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, praised the selection.
Obama, who has said little about the Middle East since winning the election, addressed diplomats and described goals for a Gaza Strip cease-fire that mirrored those of the world powers who have been trying to settle the conflict as well as predecessors in the Bush administration.
Obama said a durable cease-fire would require an opening of Gaza's border crossings, an end to rocket fire by the militant group Hamas, a halt to Hamas' arms smuggling, and an Israeli military withdrawal.
He said the United States "will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats." But he said that "just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so too is a future without hope for the Palestinians."
Mitchell, who also addressed the State Department audience, said that his experience in Northern Ireland gave him hope for the Middle East.
"I formed a conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended," Mitchell said.
In the Middle East, he said, "the key is the mutual commitment of the parties and the active participation of the United States government, led by the president and the secretary of state, with the support and assistance of the many other governments and institutions that want to help."
Holbrooke said that "nobody can say that the war in Afghanistan has gone well." He said his goals will be to "help coordinate a clearly chaotic foreign assistance program" with help from military leaders.
"If our resources are mobilized and coordinated, we can multiply tenfold the effectiveness of our effort there," he said.
U.S. presidents frequently have resorted to using senior envoys in the belief that intractable conflicts need sustained, high-level effort that others in the diplomatic hierarchy cannot afford to devote.
Senior political figures such as Mitchell are valuable in such roles because they have credibility with other leaders, and speak for their presidents, Lewis said.