Monday, January 26, 2009

Obama Pledges "Active Engagement" on Middle East Peace

President Obama has reached out to Middle East leaders to emphasize that progress toward peace in the region will be among his administration's top foreign policy priorities.

"He used this opportunity on his first day in office to communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters January 21 following Obama's phone calls to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Obama told the leaders that the United States will work to consolidate the fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip that followed a three-week Israeli offensive aimed at stopping rocket attacks on Israeli communities. Hamas has controlled Gaza since June 2007, when its forces ousted the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Fatah has maintained control over the West Bank and is the recognized government of the Palestinian Territories.

The United States will help regional leaders take measures to prevent Hamas from smuggling new weapons into Gaza, Obama said, and will extend support to the Palestinian Authority's reconstruction efforts in Gaza.

"He pledged that the United States would do its part to make these efforts successful, working closely with the international community," Gibbs said. "The president appreciated the spirit of partnership and warm nature of these calls."

DRAWDOWN IN IRAQ, RENEWAL IN AFGHANISTAN

Later in the day, Obama gathered his new national security team and top military advisers to move forward on the pledge made in his inauguration address to "responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan."

"I asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq," Obama said in a statement issued after the meeting.

Obama joined Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser James Jones, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the White House situation room to consider the road ahead. Also participating were White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and General David Petraeus, who heads the U.S military's Central Command.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker joined the conversation by videoconference, along with Generals Ray Odierno and David McKiernan, the top U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.

During his election campaign, Obama pledged to bring U.S. forces home from Iraq while working with its elected leaders and security forces to improve security conditions.

Under a security pact concluded between Washington and Bagdad in the final weeks of the Bush administration, approximately 146,000 U.S.-led coalition forces stationed at more than 400 bases across Iraq will move to locations outside populated areas by June 2009 and begin preparing for full withdrawal by 2012. Obama has said he would like to complete the withdrawal ahead of schedule, within 16 months of taking office - or around April 2010.

In Afghanistan, Obama called for stepped up American participation in a 40-nation effort to help the Afghan people emerge from decades of war and poverty, defeat remnants of the former Taliban regime and rebuild their nation.

"The situation is precarious and urgent," Obama said in a July 20, 2008, interview after visiting eastern Afghanistan. "I believe this has to be our central focus, the central front, on our battle against terrorism."

Obama will follow up the discussions on Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming weeks, he said, visiting the Pentagon for further consultations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ordering a full review of the situation in Afghanistan aimed at developing a comprehensive regional policy.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the Senate approved another key member of Obama's national security team, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a 94-2 vote.