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Obama boosts UN's relevance

Mark Mardell | 04:01 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

UN, New York

For weeks there has been talk of a no-fly zone over Libya. Now the UN has passed something much tougher at the insistence of the Americans.

That took everyone by surprise. The Obama administration had frustrated the French and British for days by not letting them know how it would vote until late on Wednesday night.

President Obama's administration wasn't just keeping its cards close to its chest. It really did take a long time making up its mind. On one side some wanted intervention to stop the killing. On the other, those often from the military did not want to become embroiled in another conflict where they did not see a clear US interest. And on both sides a determination that America should not get dragged into something that would end as a ground war, that would make it look as if a bossy America telling the Arab world what to do. Mr Obama doesn't want people in the US, hurting from the recession, to think all his focus is on foreign lands.

But after a lot of deliberation the Americans actually beefed up the resolution, widening it from a no-fly zone to allow other military action from the air and sea. That was purely practical - they didn't think a no-fly zone would achieve much on its own.
But many of President Obama's decisions flow from the lessons he draws from the Iraq war. He's shown an absolute determination that his country would only work through the United Nations. He's stressed continually that the Arab countries had to be a big part of what happened. The imperative was that America must not be seen as dictating what happens in the Muslim world.

The way he has worked will give plenty of ammunition for those who see him as an indecisive, weak leader. It may still be that what has been voted on is not too little, but too late. But by hanging back President Obama has forced others to take responsibility. This is not some abstract moral point. It has real consequences. The Arab League would have been loath to back a call that America had already made. It would have made them look like patsies for the US. If the Arab League hadn't called for a no-fly zone it would have been easy for Russia and China to veto any resolution.

Mr Obama's reticence, deliberately or not, has helped make the United Nations relevant again. Of course there are American conservatives who will see that as a betrayal in itself.

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