Thursday, January 22, 2009

Whirlwind hits Washington as President Obama starts work.

Barack Obama went to work at 8.35am yesterday morning and started getting rid of one discredited Bush administration policy after another. He has already set in place the closing of Guantanamo Bay within a year and proposed a new relationship with Iran.

And, to cover himself from nutters like Fox News:

In an unusual move - described by the White House as an "abundance of caution" - he was administered the oath of office a second time because a word was out of sequence when he was sworn in on Tuesday. Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath in front of reporters.

But, in the most serious moves of the day, he signaled, as clearly as he could, that the days of the Bush regime were over:

The most symbolically significant act of the day was to release a draft executive order to close Guantánamo within a year. The camp, site of torture and other abuses, came to define the Bush administration. The draft executive order which Obama is expected to sign today, says: "The detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than a year from the date of this order."

In two other executive orders, he is to ban torture by all US personnel and initiate a review of the cases of all those still held at Guantánamo. He ordered judges to suspend trials under way there.

The most important meeting of the day was the one with military chiefs. He wants to fulfil campaign promises to withdraw US troops from Iraq within his first 16 months in office, and to send new troops to Afghanistan. His top commander, General David Petraeus, flew from Afghanistan to be present.

On the international front, Obama's team posted on the White House website a new direction for foreign policy, of which the most startling was an offer to negotiate with Iran. Although such a policy was a prominent feature of his campaign message of engagement with America's enemies, the White House said such negotiations would be "without preconditions".

It's such a bold difference from the days of the Bush administration that it's actually startling. Such a rush of common sense is going to take a few days to get used to.

For eight years we have listened to the Bush/Cheney tired logic of "we cannot negotiate with hostile regimes" and here we have Obama - on day one - reaching out to Iran, "without preconditions".

Of course, the Bush regimes preconditions insisted that Iran gave up all it's rights under the NNPT before negotiations could even begin. So it's very welcome to see the Obama regime dispense with a policy which was almost designed to fail. It doesn't mean that he will automatically succeed where Bush did not, but it does, at least, mean that he is proceeding in good faith.

And, there are signs that he is moving fast on the Israel/Palestine front.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama made a point of ensuring that his first telephone calls to world leaders were to key players in the region. He spoke to the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah of Jordan. The fact that he called them first suggests the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be a priority.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Obama "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".

Some members of Obama's team are known to be privately angry with Israel over the death toll and destruction in Gaza, despite Obama's expression of sympathy for Israel over Palestinian rocket attacks.

All in all, it's an impressive first day. He has certainly hit the ground running.

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