WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered the closing of Guantanamo prison and named veteran trouble-shooters for the Middle East and Afghanistan as he moved swiftly to repair America’s tarnished image abroad.
In a flurry of activity focused squarely on rolling back some of predecessor George W. Bush’s policies, Obama set a one-year deadline for shutting Guantanamo, barred harsh treatment of terrorism suspects held there and closed secret CIA jails overseas.
The prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba — where prisoners have been detained for years without charge, some subjected to interrogation that human rights groups say amounted to torture — had damaged America’s moral standing in the world.
“The world needs to understand that America will be unyielding in its defense of its security and relentless in its pursuit of those who would carry out terrorism or threaten the United States,” Obama said after signing a series of orders.
But he said his new administration wanted to send “an unmistakable signal that our actions in defense of liberty will be (as) just as our cause.”
While working behind closed doors with advisers to confront the worst financial crisis in decades, Obama used his early public appearances to put foreign policy and national security on the front burner.
“We can no longer afford drift and we no longer can afford delay,” Obama said as he waded into the thicket of diplomacy with a visit to the State Department to preside over the announcements of new conflict envoys.
Former Sen. George Mitchell, a seasoned diplomat, was named to help revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, which Bush was criticized for failing to give enough attention.
Obama seized the opportunity to pledge to “actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors” and work to ensure a durable ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
He made a point of backing Israel’s “right to defend itself” against cross-border Hamas rocket fire, but also said it was “intolerable” for Palestinians, who want a state of their own, to face a “future without hope.”
A Hamas spokesman in Lebanon told Al Jazeera television that Obama was off to “an unfortunate start” and represented no change in policy from Bush. An adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he thought the Obama administration would continue Bush’s policy of shunning Hamas.
Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was appointed the first U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a region Obama called “the central front” in the battle against terrorism.
Obama has ordered a full review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, where he has pledged to boost troop levels. Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the remote, mountainous border region of Pakistan near Afghanistan.
The announcements came as Obama, an Illinois Democrat sworn in on Tuesday as the first black U.S. president, acted to tackle a litany of foreign policy challenges bequeathed to him by Bush and highlighted during his run for the White House.
Those include pursuing a policy of broader engagement overseas than Bush, who was criticized for “cowboy diplomacy,” and refocusing the fight against terrorism away from the unpopular Iraq war and back to the Afghan conflict.
Obama’s decision to visit the State Department before the Pentagon could signal the importance his new administration will put on diplomacy, rather than military muscle, in tackling major conflicts.
Obama made no direct mention of U.S. foe Iran, but seemed to allude to the Islamic republic when he said, “Going forward, we must make it clear to all countries in the region that external support for terrorist organizations must stop.”
He has pledged to engage diplomatically with Tehran, in contrast to Bush’s strategy of trying to isolate it.
Obama’s orders on Guantanamo, established by the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks of 2001, signaled his determination to reverse some of his predecessor’s security policies that drew outrage from human rights advocates.
The European Union and human rights groups praised Obama’s move, which kicked off a review process to deal with relocating, releasing or prosecuting the remaining detainees.
Some Republicans said it left too many unanswered questions on what to do with prisoners considered dangerous.
Deciding to close the prison is just the first step in a complicated process to decide the fate of its 250 inmates.
A separate presidential decree requires the CIA to close secret detention centers overseas that generated controversy in Europe and prohibits creation of such sites in the future.
On the domestic front, with markets volatile, Obama held his second daily meeting with top economic advisers to try to chart a course out of the worst financial crisis in decades.
Obama’s pick to head the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, won Senate Finance Committee backing, clearing the way for a full Senate confirmation vote that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he hoped to hold around 6 p.m. on Monday.
“I do,” Reid told reporters when asked if he expected Geithner to be confirmed.
In a stark sign of the problems, new data showed the number of U.S. workers lining up for jobless benefits surged last week and home-building slumped to a record low in December.