Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 December 2008
Issue No. 925
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A new beginning

Or so they say, mulls Anayat Durrani

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United States President-elect Barack Obama has promised to embark on a new chapter of American leadership when he assumes office 20 January. With his cabinet assembled, the incoming president is ready to hit the ground running.

Obama said the foreign policy challenges his administration confronts will help restore America's moral standing in the world. An Obama administration seeks to return America back to a time of relying on diplomacy and treaties rather than military solutions.

"To succeed, we must pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances, and integrates all elements of American power: our military and diplomacy; our intelligence and law enforcement; our economy and the power of our moral example. The team that we have assembled here today is uniquely suited to do just that," Obama said.

He appointed three women -- Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security and Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations. There are two African-Americans, Condoleezza Rice and Eric Holder, who will be the first black attorney- general. Obama has tapped retired Marine Corps General James Jones, a Republican, to be his national security advisor.

Under president Bill Clinton, Holder was appointed deputy attorney-general in 1997 and was the highest ranking African-American law enforcement official in the country at the time. Holder is expected to focus much of his efforts on reforming the Justice Department, following controversy over its hiring practices and anti-terror regulations.

With Obama's new team in place, he emphasised that all the members of his team shared the belief in the need to refocus US foreign policy. "We will strengthen our capacity to defeat our enemies and support our friends. We will renew old alliances and forge new and enduring partnerships," he said. "We will show the world once more that America is committed to the ideals that shine as a beacon to the world: democracy and justice; opportunity and unyielding hope -- because American values are America's greatest export to the world."

Clinton repeatedly criticised Obama for his lack of foreign policy experience during the primaries, and he in turn criticised her for her support of the war in Iraq. Obama now calls his former presidential rival "a friend, a colleague, a source of counsel and a campaign opponent" who possesses "an extraordinary intelligence and toughness." Clinton told the press conference that she would make America a new force for positive change and work with the global community to address crises worldwide. "The American people have demanded not just a new direction at home, but a new effort to renew America's standing in the world as a force for positive change," she said after being nominated.

Many have praised Obama's choice of Clinton for secretary of state saying as former first lady, and someone well travelled, along with her foreign policy expertise from serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, she is well suited to the position. In an interview on NBC television's "Meet the Press", former Republican secretary of state James Baker said Clinton's nomination will be lauded by many worldwide. "She will be successful depending upon how seamless she is with her president, and how they operate together and how he protects her back," he said.

Clinton's appointment was well received in Israel with the prime minister proclaiming she is a friend of the state of Israel and is expected to advance "the special Israel-US relationship". Clinton is such a good friend in fact that earlier in the year she threatened to "totally obliterate" Iran if it ever launched a nuclear attack on Israel. Clinton defended the wall separating Israel from the West Bank. She supports Jerusalem as the "eternal and indivisible capital of Israel".

Jones, Obama's national security adviser, served last year as US envoy for Middle East security working with the Israeli army and Palestinian security forces. In his report last August on security in the Palestinian territories, Jones was highly critical of Israel's military activities within the Palestinian territories. To Israel's dismay, Jones favoured the deployment of a NATO-led international military force to the region. He told the publication Inside the Pentagon last month, "'Nothing is more important" to regional security in the Middle East than resolving the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.

While Obama's team represents a wide range of views, from Iraq to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the president-elect said he prefers it that way. "I assembled this team because I am a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions," he said. "I think that's how the best decisions are made. One of the dangers in the White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in group-think and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views. So I am going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House."

Obama repeated his plan to get US troops out of Iraq within 16 months of his taking office. However, he said he would continuously consult with advisers on the situation. When announcing his choice of retaining Gates as the Pentagon chief, Obama said that Afghanistan is where the war on terror began and should be where it must end.

In Europe, Clinton's appointment was applauded, with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner saying her "competence, her convictions and her human qualities" make her a good fit for the job.

The Russians were not impressed. The Duma's foreign affairs commission chief, Konstantin Kossachev, said "these nominations inspire no optimism whatsoever." Kossachev said the appointments "imply continuity, and not a reform of how the White House approaches foreign policy."

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