WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama moved to reshape U.S. international policy on Thursday, ordering the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp closed within a year and naming new envoys to the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan.
"We have no time to lose," he said as he welcomed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to help forge what he called "a new era of American leadership" in the world.
It was a day in which Obama sought to reverse some of the most contentious policies of his predecessor.
"I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture," he said in a visit to the State Department on his second full day in office.
The president and Clinton named former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a veteran troubleshooter, as special envoy to the Middle East and former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to serve in the same capacity for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Obama said he would aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians while also always defending Israel's "right to defend itself." He cited a "deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan" and said that region is now "the central front" in the battle against terrorism and extremism.
"We can no longer afford drift, we can no longer afford delay," he said.
The centerpiece order would close the much-maligned Guantanamo facility within a year, a complicated process with many unanswered questions that was nonetheless a key campaign promise of Obama's. The administration already has suspended trials for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals.
In the other actions, Obama:
—Created a task force that would have 30 days to recommend policies on handling terror suspects who are detained in the future. Specifically, the group would look at where those detainees should be housed since Guantanamo is closing.
—Required all U.S. personnel to follow the U.S. Army Field Manual while interrogating detainees. The manual explicitly prohibits threats, coercion, physical abuse and waterboarding, a technique that creates the sensation of drowning and has been termed a form of torture by critics. However, a Capitol Hill aide says that the administration also is planning a study of more aggressive interrogation methods that could be added to the Army manual — which would create a significant loophole to Obama's action Thursday.
"We believe that the Army Field Manual reflects the best judgment of our military, that we can abide by a rule that says we don't torture, but that we can still effectively obtain the intelligence that we need," Obama said. He said his action reflects an understanding that "we are willing to observe core standards of conduct, not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard."
—Directed the Justice Department to review the case of Qatar native Ali al-Marri, who is the only enemy combatant currently being held on U.S. soil. The review will look at whether al-Marri has the right to sue the government for his freedom, a right the Supreme Court already has given to Guantanamo detainees. The directive will ask the high court for a stay in al-Marri's appeals case while the review is ongoing. The government says al-Marri is an al-Qaida sleeper agent.
An estimated 245 men are being held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, most of whom have been detained for years without being charged with a crime. Among the sticky issues the Obama administration has to resolve are where to put those detainees — whether back in their home countries or at other federal detention centers — and how to prosecute some of them for war crimes.
"We intend to win this fight. We're going to win it on our terms," Obama said as he signed three executive orders and a presidential directive.
In his first Oval Office signing ceremony, Obama was surrounded by retired senior military leaders. He described them as outstanding Americans who have defended the country — and its ideals.