Obama plunges into agenda at home and abroad

United States President Barack Obama is expected to issue an order on Thursday to close Guantánamo prison after a busy first full day in office that saw him meet his economic advisers and war council and plunge into Israeli-Palestinian peace diplomacy.

Obama’s packed agenda signalled he was serious about meeting his promise to break sharply with Republican predecessor George Bush’s policies at home and abroad.

He even managed to squeeze in one small but pressing matter—retaking his oath of office. Chief Justice John Roberts had inadvertently switched a word while administering it on Tuesday.

A draft executive order obtained by Reuters on Wednesday sets a one-year deadline to close the controversial US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where foreign terrorism suspects have been detained for years without trial.

Acting swiftly on day one after his inauguration, Obama also ordered a full review of the US strategy in Afghanistan, where he has pledged to boost troop numbers, and told generals to take the first steps toward executing his campaign pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Obama, who has vowed a bolder pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace than Bush, also called Israeli and Arab leaders to commit to “active engagement” and to promise his help in consolidating the Gaza ceasefire.

“He pledged that the United States would do its part to make these efforts successful, working closely with the international community,” White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said.

Middle East high priority
With his prompt attention to the decades-old Middle East conflict, he made clear it would be a top foreign policy priority among the litany of problems he inherited from Bush.

And Obama’s immediate focus on Guantánamo, where the harsh treatment of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration damaged America’s moral standing in the world, showed his determination to clean up the US image abroad.

A White House official and a Congressional aide said Obama would issue the order closing Guantánamo on Thursday. He will also ban abusive interrogations and order a review of detention policies for captured militants, they said.

The White House said Obama would meet retired military officers on Thursday to discuss the proposed executive orders.

Guantánamo, opened by the Bush administration after the September 11 2001 attacks, has been denounced by human rights groups for interrogation methods like “waterboarding”—or simulated drowning—they said amounted to torture.

Obama also continued filling out the top spots in his Cabinet.

Hillary Clinton won overwhelming US Senate approval as secretary of state, despite renewed Republican concerns about potential conflicts of interest created by overseas fundraising by her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

Obama spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah not long after he stepped into the Oval Office for the first time since his historic inauguration as the first black US president.

He is expected to name a Middle East envoy soon, with former US Senator George Mitchell widely considered his choice for the job.

Economy can’t wait
Obama has made clear his Middle East strategy will be different from that of Bush, who was faulted by critics for taking a largely hands-off approach to peacemaking for much of his eight years in office.

On the domestic front, with markets volatile and job losses mounting, Obama held a late afternoon meeting with top economic advisers to try to chart a course out of the economic crisis.

Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner, appearing before a Senate panel for a confirmation hearing, said the government’s response would be made in coming weeks.
Obama’s advisers have been working with the Democratic-led Congress on an $825-billion fiscal stimulus package.

Obama will attend a briefing with his key economic advisers on Thursday morning, the White House said.

With Iraq also high on his agenda, Obama held talks with US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, members of his national security team and the top military commander in the region.

“During the discussion I asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq,” he said afterward.

Obama has said he favours a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq

He also announced he was freezing the pay for senior White House staff and tightening up rules for former lobbyists who work in government—an effort to make good on campaign promises for ethics reform.—Reuters

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