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The Enigma Variations

Mark Mardell | 21:08 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The American position on a new UN resolution to stop a massacre in Libya is still an enigma. Today the mystery is deepened by different signals from different players. My best guess is that there are very real divides and the White House is trying to square the circle.
Hilary Clinton, who today told CNN she wouldn't serve another term as secretary of state, said in an interview with my colleague Kim Ghattas, says that there is a "sense of urgency" and she "hopes the US will be part of a consensus" around a resolution that would help "protect ordinary Libyans and prevents massacre and slaughter". Mrs Clinton suggests there will be a vote tomorrow.

A no-fly zone would be part of it although the US appears to be arguing for a phrase along the lines of taking "all necessary measures", which on the surface, toughens it up considerably, perhaps to include airstrikes against Gaddafi's tanks and artillery, which the New York Times says the White House is considering.

But I am also hearing the defence secretary Robert Gates is still fiercely against a no-fly zone. The military argue Libya is not a key US national interest. They and others, are far more worried about what is happening in Bahrain. That is part of the concern over a UN resolution. If it is right to use military force to protect civilians in Libya, why is it not right to do the same in Bahrain?

President Obama has telephoned the King of Saudi Arabia and the King of Bahrain urging restraint and telling them that there is a brighter future in political dialogue. Hillary Clinton calls the violence "alarming" and says they are on "the wrong track". A rift with Saudi would be a nightmare for the administration. So would Saudi troops firing on civilians.

But rightly or wrongly, it is a no-fly zone and Libya that has become a symbol, the mark to be measured against. If, in the next few days, Benghazi is overrun and there is slaughter, Obama will get some of the blame. As the hours tick away it is harder and harder not to see continued deliberations as dithering.

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