WASHINGTON — President Obama, emphasizing the use of vigorous diplomacy to settle seemingly intractable problems, named two Democratic heavyweights Thursday as administration envoys to two of the world's most troubled regions.
Obama named former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as special envoy to the Middle East and former U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
By appearing at the State Department with his vice president, secretary of State and his new envoys, Obama underscored his departure from the Bush administration by again insisting that diplomacy take precedence over military power.
Former President Bush frequently was criticized for eschewing his State Department in international affairs and too quickly turning to military action or threats of force.
Obama, voicing a key theme of his presidency, said his administration would "use all elements of American power to protect our people and to promote our interests and ideals, starting with principled, focused and sustained American diplomacy."
Holbrooke, 67, is credited with helping forge the Dayton peace accord of 1995 that ended the war in Bosnia- Herzegovina, and is known as a hard-driving, sometimes abrasive diplomat.
Mitchell, 75, received plaudits for advancing peace in Northern Ireland as envoy there during the Clinton administration, and also headed a commission that looked for ways to end Israeli-Palestinian violence. He is considered a patient, evenhanded negotiator.
His appointment as Middle East envoy came a day after Obama placed calls to leaders in the region and pledged an early and sustained effort to seek peace, drawing another contrast with Bush, who critics said avoided the issue for most of his presidency before launching an initiative in 2007.
Mitchell's is the more politically sensitive appointment. It won praise from many sides, but some conservatives in Israel and among Israel's American supporters voiced concern that Mitchell could choose to exert new pressure on the Israelis. A report by Mitchell's commission in 2001 reportedly irritated the government of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Former U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis, who recently visited the region, said there was "a lot of nervousness in Israel" about Mitchell. Some worry about how the Obama administration will view issues such as Israeli security needs and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Some more dovish pro-Israel groups, including Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, praised the selection.
"George Mitchell is not only intimately familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he also has a proven record of peacemaking success as President Clinton's special envoy to Northern Ireland," said Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now.
Obama, who has said little about the Middle East since winning election in November, 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 of 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 from the Hamas militant group that controls the Palestinian enclave, a halt to Hamas' arms smuggling, and an Israeli military withdrawal.
He said the U.S. would "always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats," but also 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 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."
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."
The appointment of Holbrooke, who was assigned to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, reflects a growing belief that South Asia is in need of region-wide solutions that involve both countries and, many experts think, India as well.
Holbrooke said that "nobody can say that the war in Afghanistan has gone well." His goals, he said, 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 can't 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, said Lewis, the former ambassador.
The appointments came on the day that Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived at State Department headquarters to begin her job as secretary of State, and was met with an exuberant welcome.
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Birthplace: New York
Education: B.A., Brown University, 1962; graduate study at Princeton University
Career highlights: U.N. ambassador, 1999-2001; chief U.S. negotiator for 1995 Dayton peace accord for Bosnia-Herzegovina
Sources: Tribune archives;