BBC BLOGS - Mark Mardell's America

Archives for March 2011

Turning a Libyan rabble into an army

Mark Mardell | 17:05 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Comments

Libyan rebels wait at a checkpoint in Brega

Will President Barack Obama arm the Libyan rebels? He says: "I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in."

Beneath that bland obfuscation, the momentum is all in one direction. The speed of decision making is seriously slowed by the friction of several concerns.

Some are worried about the legality of an apparent breach of an arms embargo. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton isn't one of them. She says a transfer of arms would be legal.

With "flickers" of intelligence that the rebels may contain al-Qaeda supporters come deep concerns that Nato would be arming the enemy.

You don't have to be the CIA or SIS to know this is likely to be true. Libyan al-Qaeda fighters were active in Iraq, and the closely linked Islamic Fighting Group has been active in the past.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates may have some doubts about this path.

After all, he was one of the CIA officers involved in arming the mujahideen in the 1980s. That's right: the guys who became the Taliban, whom the Americans are fighting to this day.

But most of the discussion is missing a much bigger point.

"Arming the rebels" is a convenient shorthand, but anyone who thinks it is that simple is living in an exciting Boy's Own world of adventure that bears little relationship to real military conflict.

Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who chaired Mr Obama's review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, told me: "This is more complex than flying planes over and throwing AK-47s on the ground."

The sort of heavy weapons that would make the difference require months of intense training. But Mr Riedel thinks the path is set.

We are past the Rubicon. Barring a miracle, the situation looks like a stalemate. If we don't want to live with that, it means boots on the ground.

He says that as America boots are politically out of the question, that means the rebel forces will have to defeat Col Gaddafi. My BBC colleagues on the front line say while the rebels lack serious weaponry, what they lack even more is a coherent plan.

Mr Riedel says as well as training in specific weapons they need "organisation and discipline".

"It is about turning a rabble into an army," he says.

It seems to me that this is a slippery slope. You provide weapons, so you provide trainers. The trainers need protecting. The protectors needs supply lines. The supply lines need protecting. Before you know it there are more than just a few foreign boots on the ground.

Mr Riedel again:

Mission creep is inevitable. That is why you saw such an anguished debate. Those most reluctant, like the defence secretary, know that and will want a clarity of mission and more troops. The uniformed military have understood from the beginning once you start these things they snowball.

America does have experience in this field. There was another conflict where it sent a few people to oversee the supply of military equipment to local fighters and the French. That expanded to a few hundred advisers, to supply a little guidance and little training at a distance. Before long some more troops were sent. That's when it became known as the Vietnam War.

Barack Obama says the 'I' word

Mark Mardell | 02:41 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Comments

President Barack Obama speaks on Libya

In his big speech on Libya, President Barack Obama answered two big questions, left two hanging in the air, and rewrote some recent history.


He said he had ordered military action in Libya to prevent a massacre that would have "stained the conscience of the world", and would have meant "the democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power".

He said that that "would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

Having dealt with critics who say he's gone too far, Mr Obama turned to those who say he hasn't gone far enough.

He said the world would be a better place without Col Muammar Gaddaffi, but to widen military aims to get rid of him would have splintered the coalition and meant American boots on the ground.

"To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq's future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."

In this, he is preparing people for what may be quite a messy period, and he warned that Libya will remain dangerous until Col Gaddafi goes, that the Libyan leader may cling to power for a while, but that his people had been given "time and space" to decide their own destiny.

This is one question hanging in the air. How far is the coalition acting as the rebel air force? It may not be targeting the top man, but is it intent on destroying his military force? How thin is the line between driving off an army that may attack civilians and destroying that army in case they do?

The other question left hanging was whether there was such a thing as an "Obama doctrine", or at least a consistent approach to intervention. On the one hand, he seemed to argue against those who said America should not police the world: "There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are."

However, he accepted that didn't mean action in every case. "It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right."

So he seems to be saying, sometimes you do, sometimes you don't, take each case on its merit.

But what struck me most forcibly was the determined, confident tone of the speech. Every single news conference, sound bite or statement so far by Mr Obama has stressed that the UK and France were in the lead, the Arabs were supporting, the US was just part of a broad coalition. They've been thoughtful and a little hesitant. Those were the "on the road" snapshots. This was the air-brushed studio portrait.

Now Mr Obama repeatedly talked of the decisions he took, his leadership, his reasoning for taking firm action. The fact that the US mission is winding down and that it is handing over control to Nato was in there, but it wasn't the emphasis. Now it seems as if the action has worked, Mr Obama is claiming credit. The "I" word was to the fore, and I don't just mean Iraq.

What Obama has to tell America about Libya

Mark Mardell | 14:50 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011

Comments

President Barack Obama tonight makes a speech he'd rather not be making: Explaining to his country, proud of its military but weary of war, why he has decided to bomb the armed forces of another Middle Eastern country.

TV networks are gearing up for live coverage. Mr Obama doesn't want to be a foreign policy president when most Americans are far more interested in the state of the economy, but he may not be able to avoid that fate.

The networks wouldn't dream of breaking into normal programming for one of his frequent economic speeches, so it is as though he never made them. This, on the other hand, could be a defining moment.

Some think it is too late. One usually supportive commentator writes: "This is really, truly unbelievable to me, and the worst thing Obama has done as president."

The man who speaks for House Republicans, John Boehner wrote a letter listing a series of worries, concluding, "all of these concerns point to a fundamental question: what is your benchmark for success in Libya?"

The president has made his task more difficult with an approach that is either sophisticated or confused, depending on your take.

He has to tell America why it is worth taking action. He also has to explain why he doesn't want the US to be in the lead or in charge. It took more than a week of wrangling before Nato agreed to take full control.

Donald Rumsfeld made the point the coalition should be defined by it aims, not the aims by the coalition. This is a real philosophical difference: politics as the art of the possible or an act of will.

America's low profile may be genuine or just spin, smoke and mirrors to disguise America's real role, but either way it is hardly heroic.

But it may be this tepid message reflects the American public's own lukewarm enthusiasm. A Gallup poll finds 74% back action, much lower than support for the Iraq war or Afghanistan at the time.

If I was Mr Obama that wouldn't worry me too much. He doesn't want to be in Libya in 10 years.

Indeed, explaining why this is not a long-term commitment like Iraq or Afghanistan has to be an important part of the message. So does being explicit about the goals. A lot of people have trouble getting their heads around his repeated contention that a Libya without Gaddafi is a political goal of the US but not a military one. The military goal is to protect civilians. The lines may indeed be blurring as the armed rebels advance on cities where some civilians may support Gaddafi.

We will be getting briefings throughout the day, so I will update, but I expect he will start with the latest "good" news.

He will stress that the US is acting as part of an international coalition, with Arab backing, and that the US's aims and commitment are limited. And he'll throw in some stirring rhetoric about the Arab Spring and universal human rights.

I doubt that he will address what to me are the fascinating contradictions at the heart of Obama's dilemma.

  • The tug between not wanting to be the world's policeman and being the only guy with the gun and the muscle to stop a murder.
  • The whole-hearted desire to act in concert with other countries, and the realisation that implies going along with stuff they want to do and you don't. (Being dragged into a war by the French, imagine.)
  • Not wanting to be out front when many world structures are designed in the expectation that like it or not, America will lead.
  • Intellectual appreciation that the ghost of Western colonialism is a powerful spirit never exorcised, and frustration that an untainted liberal interventionism hasn't grown in other countries.
It took a long time for Mr Obama to decide to take action, and the route he has taken, a genuine commitment to acting with other nations with the US in the lead, has made for the appearance of more muddle. Now it is time for clarity.

USS Bataan: Mission uncertain?

Mark Mardell | 16:52 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011

Comments

Norfolk, Virginia

Two tugs play around the USS Bataan, guiding her out of port, the beginning of her long journey to the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya. Sailors and Marines line her decks, standing to attention while relatives say their goodbyes from another ship on the quayside. One woman rubs her hands up and down the arms of her young son, comforting herself with the repetitive motion as much as him. Another waves as the ship departs, waves as it moves into the open waters, and is still waving as it shrinks into the distance. There are tears, as those who remain behind hug each other in support.

One woman tells me: "Every time they go it is like a little bit taken out of a puzzle. That puzzle is your life. And they never come back the same."


The pain of parting for probably around a year must be great. But this mission is not like Afghanistan, or in the past Iraq, where those leaving would definitely see action. Indeed, no-one seems certain what they are going to do.

Not, as is sometimes the case, because they are unwilling to discuss a military operation. They really don't know.

I ask a couple of Marines if they think they will be landing.

"Couldn't really tell you," says one.

Do they know what the mission is? They shake their heads.

Several tell me they are surprised. They were due to go out to the area soon anyway but the Libyan crisis has cut short their time at home.

"Yes, sir, honestly a little bit surprised, but you're ready for anything in the navy."

"We only got two weeks' notice, it's really sudden," said another.

"I am a little surprised, they're very surprised too, it's a Libyan civil war, I don't quite know what we're doing there," one mother, here to see off her son, tells me.

They are, at least, designed to be ready for anything.

The USS Bataan, along with the USS Mesa Verde and USS Whidbey Island make up an amphibious ready group. The Bataan, which looks to my untutored eye like a small aircraft carrier, is an amphibious assault craft. On board are about 800 Marines (2,200 in the three ships), 26 aircraft, mostly helicopters, and a 600-bed hospital.

They would have been going out to the Med anyway, later in the year, to replace the USS Kearsarge. She's used to being a jack of all trades, delivering troops to the Iraq war, then acting as a Harrier carrier, and helping with the crisis after Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake. Minutes before he boarded the ship I asked the Commodore of Amphibious Squadron Six, Capt Steven Yoder, if he knew what the mission was.

"Right now it's undetermined. We arrive on station, we will be asked to do any of the missions we're trained to. They run from humanitarian assistance to maritime and security operations," he says.

I ask the Marines' commanding officer, Col Eric Steidl, what their mission will be, given that the UN resolution and President Barack Obama have been quite clear that there will be no boots on the ground, especially not American boots.

"I don't make policy decisions, I do what 'higher' tells me to do. Does that mean they will have nothing to do? That's not for me to say," he tells me.

In any war, the individual fighting men and women and their units don't know exactly what they are going to be doing and how that might change. It is a cliche to say no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. But in the Libyan crisis, there is greater uncertainty. The natural evolution of any conflict is further fogged by the uncertainty of what happens if Col Muammar Gaddafi doesn't lose quickly, and fears that the mission will change.

Nonetheless, those 2,200 Marines had better be prepared for a dull and uneventful trip. If they ever come off the front ramp of this landing craft, if they are ever deployed, it will be in defiance of the UN's resolution.

Mr Obama's words are clear, but the US military likes to be prepared for anything.

Obama's Libyan mission creep?

Mark Mardell | 17:35 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Comments

The worries about what the mission is in Libya are growing.

Some of it is mischief-making by media looking for a story or President Barack Obama's opponents looking for an easy hit.

There is, after all, no contradiction in the White House position that the UN-sanctioned military mission is restricted to protecting civilians but that the longer-term, broader political aim is to remove Col Muammar Gaddafi.

What is left unsaid is that presumably the man giving the orders to kill civilians is Col Gaddafi. Getting rid of him would protect civilians. QED.

Unknown but worrying everyone: what happens if there is an uncomfortable stalemate splitting the country, with Col Gaddafi still in charge around Tripoli and the rebels in control in the east?

But the latest concerns are over the read-out of a conversation between the US president and the prime minister of Turkey in which they agreed their shared goal in Libya was "installing a democratic system that respects the people's will".

It is that "installing" that has some worried. But the mission set out by Mr Obama last Friday was pretty tough.

The man in charge of Operation Odyssey Dawn, Adm Samuel Locklear, has just given a briefing saying the no-fly zone is now in place.

He was asked why it seemed air cover was being given to rebels attacking Col Gaddafi's forces.

After all, that has little to do with protecting civilians, if both sides are fighting.

"Great question" he replied.

The answer was the president had demanded that Libyan government forces retreat from Ajdabiya, Misrata and Zawiya. They had to restore gas, electricity and water and allow humanitarian aid into those towns.

Mission creep or not, that is a pretty high bar to set.

The eloquence of action

Mark Mardell | 14:08 UK time, Sunday, 20 March 2011

Comments

Every time President Obama talks about Libya, he repeats that America is not acting alone, that the Arab League is behind the action and that this is not about imposing change from outside. But as American cruise missiles explode in Libya his statements will compete with the noise of war, which threatens to drown out his insistent message. Actions do indeed speak louder than words.

Obama's message may be in part intended to sooth supporters at home, who saw their man as an anti-war president and are now having second thoughts. But they are much more for the world beyond the West. A reassurance that Libya is not Iraq, this is not imperialism, this is not the America that decides world winners and losers. It is not the Western crusade for oil that Gaddafi describes.

The president jumped off the fence at the last moment for a number of reasons. The rapidly crumbling of the rebel forces, the realization Gaddafi was about to win. The support of the Arab League. But unavoidably, choice was forced upon him by the vigorous lead given by Britain and France. Crucial allies of the US, they were out front, loud in their demands and the moment was approaching when Obama would either have to oppose them or back them.

Not joining in was too risky, a declaration of independence too far for a president who stress the need for the world to work together.

They had their own, internal political reasons. Sarkozy after an embarrassing Egyptian crisis, wanted to put himself on the front foot. Cameron sees this as a big foreign policy moment, and wants to establish his reputation. But it is far too cynical to put their enthusiasm down to these shallow reasons alone.

They felt it was their duty to intervene. We don't focus on this nearly enough. The Chinese didn't feel that way. Neither did the Russians. Nor the Indians. Or Brazilians. And despite the Arab League's much trumpeted backing they wouldn't have made a peep without encouragement and still aren't doing much despite all those planes they buy from the US and UK.

Why does the West feel this way, when no one else does? Is it a legacy of the enlightenment, a sense of responsibility and shared humanity? Or does it follow from colonialism, a feeling that it is their role to rule, that there is still a version of Kipling's "White Man's Burden", - the "savage wars of peace" - even if it is defined by geography, not colour.

Until the history books are printed, or at least Woodward's next book, we won't know what Obama really wanted. Perhaps he desired this outcome all along but felt it best to hang back for tactical reasons. Perhaps it is what he wanted to avoid, but the alternative of a massacre happening partly because of American dithering, was much worse.

Obama in the end has opted to adopt the traditional world view of the West, while insisting he is different. This could be applauded in the Muslim and the Arab world. It could be ignored. Perhaps the lesson is that the President of the United States will be looked to to lead, whether he likes it or not. It's a question of direction.

The Obama doctrine: The limits to American power

Mark Mardell | 20:52 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

Comments

There was a recurring rhythm to President Barack Obama's speech about the no-fly zone over Libya. But it wasn't a drum beat of war - it was a chorus about consensus, an insistence on internationalism.

Sure, there was an ultimatum, the threat of military action. Those are the headlines. And there was an explanation why America might have to fight.

Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilised, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.

But the subtext is more important. Read the last sentence in that quotation again. In a speech of just over three pages he repeats this point. Not once:

The US has worked with our allies and partners to shape a strong international response.

Not twice:

The US is prepared to act as part of an international coalition. American leadership is essential, but that does not mean acting alone.

Not three times:

It is not an action that we will pursue alone. Indeed, our British and French allies, and members of the Arab League, have already committed to take a leadership role.

But more:

So I have taken this decision with the confidence that action is necessary, and that we will not be acting alone.

So you might have gathered, the US is not going it alone. Throughout his declaration Mr Obama makes it clear how different this is to the Iraq war. Not only the international consensus, but the limits on action.

I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing. The US is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.

The limits he sets out are not just practical, they are limits to ambitions and objectives.

I want to be clear: The change in the region will not and cannot be imposed by the US or any foreign power; ultimately, it will be driven by the people of the Arab World. It is their right and their responsibility to determine their own destiny.

Mr Obama is only a reluctant convert to action, and you could argue he's merely disguising his feet-dragging with noble rhetoric about the international community. It's certainly noticeable that he didn't mention the killings in Yemen (although he earlier issued a statement condemning them) or the unrest in Bahrain, stiffer tests of American power and resolve.

But I think we are seeing something new. He is using a crisis thrust upon him to set out an Obama doctrine of sorts, to make a statement about America's relationship with the world. While he is in charge, he is saying, America will not go it alone, will set limits on what it does, and won't impose its will. Some will not like this,
and the world will find it difficult to adapt to a president who almost seems determined to lead from behind.

The Obama doctrine is a tightrope walk: Acting, but within limits, leading only as a first among equals.

Obama boosts UN's relevance

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

Comments

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.

Libya airstrikes could start 'within hours of resolution'

Mark Mardell | 20:06 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

Comments

The United Nations seems on the brink of taking a momentous decision. After hanging back for days the Americans have now not only backed the British and French resolution on Libya but beefed it up. The fact that the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, will be here in person is a sign of French confidence that the Russians and Chinese won't block the resolution.

The latest draft I have seen goes well beyond calling for a no-fly zone. It says that the Arab League, individual nations and organizations like Nato are authorized to "take all necessary measures...to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat...including Benghazi, while excluding an occupation force."

I am told the first strikes will be unilateral ones by British and French aircraft. They could be in the air within hours. It is likely five Arab air forces will take part. Hillary Clinton has said it will mean bombing Libyan air defences. Nato will step up if asked but could take a while.

Although there have been other recent UN operations this would be the most serious intervention in a crisis for a long time, a marked contrast to the division over Iraq. That does not ease the worries of some in the administration that this will still be labeled an American war and they will be dragged deeper and deeper into the affairs of another Arab nation.

US talks tough on Libya

Mark Mardell | 05:26 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

Comments

The US, so long hesitant about military action in Libya, now says a mere no-fly zone doesn't go far enough. They want something tougher.

For days the US has held back, refusing to reveal its position - even to allies like the UK and France who are behind the demand for a no-fly zone.

Now the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, has said that the resolution which is being discussed may need to go beyond this proposal, adding that no-fly zones have "inherent limitations" in protecting citizens at immediate risk.

She said the UN Security Council is focused on swift and meaningful action to halt the killing on the ground. We're told that is diplomatic speak for airstrikes and bombardment from the sea. Sending in troops has been ruled out.

She has a point. Most in the US top brass are scornful about the idea of a no-fly zone. The US flew more than 30 sorties a day over Iraq and it didn't bring down Saddam Hussein.

No-fly zones would have been no good against the awful massacres of Rwanda and Srebrenica.

But the argument has gone further than this.

There's been serious debate inside President Obama's administration about the wisdom of using military force at all.

There's an aversion to getting involved in another war with another Muslim country, or giving the impression that democracy is a Western plot. Libya is seen as a distraction, not a core US interest.

Perhaps a promise of Arab nations leading any such action is a key to any change of heart.

The New York Times reports that unnamed European diplomats have privately suggested America's support for tougher measures is a deliberate plot to provoke a veto.

That's too cynical for me. But the speed with which the rebels are apparently being crushed must be a factor.

The Russians and Chinese are not on board yet, and any international endorsed action could come too late.

The UN advances rather more slowly than Col Gaddafi's forces.


The Enigma Variations

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

Comments

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.

Is Obama deliberating or dithering on Libya

Mark Mardell | 22:37 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Comments

The US is not meant to be a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.

The country leaves obscurantist nods and winks to other nations. Love or hate American foreign policy, we are used to presidents shouting their intentions from the rooftops and rallying the reluctant. But whether President Barack Obama will back a no-fly zone over Libya remains a mystery.

The UN Security Council is meeting mid-morning on Wednesday. The French and the UK - backed by the Lebanese - have written a draft resolution that would impose a no-fly zone on Libya and ban commercial flights from bringing arms and mercenaries into the country.

There won't be a vote at this meeting, but decision time can't be far off.

The Chinese and the Russians have questions.

Not least, how can the Arab League simultaneously call for a no fly zone and reject foreign interference? Who do they think will fly the planes to enforce the policy?

Mr Obama would dearly love to hear the Arab League declare its member countries will lead the mission. After all, there is no shortage of fire power in the region.

White House spokesman Jay Carney stressed on Tuesday the US will not go it alone:

Our position is that action like that should be considered and taken if decided upon in co-ordination with our international partners, because it's very important in the way that we respond to a situation like we see in Libya, that it be international and not unilateral; that it include the support and participation, for example, of the Arab League and other organisations and countries in the region... precisely so that it is not viewed by those who oppose positive democratic reform as the dictate of the West or the United States.

In a world used to America taking the lead, Mr Obama's decision to take a back seat is dangerous for him politically.

It may be grown up, it may be sensible in the long run, but it is so unfamiliar that to many it will look like dithering, not deliberation.

In a country where some are obsessed with the notion of America's decline, it will confirm some people's worst fears.

Mr Carney found he had to "push back", as they say here, against accusations of a fence-sitting lack of leadership from Mr Obama: "I take issue with the characterisation."

And when it comes to considering military options, this president will always be mindful of what the mission - should it be engaged - what it entails, the risks that it poses to our men and women in uniform, and its likelihood of having the kind of impact that we set out for it to have. And that is his responsibility as commander-in-chief. And I would suggest to you that that is what leadership is all about.

Why there'll be no no-fly-zone over Bahrain

Mark Mardell | 11:48 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Comments

For the first time, I think the "no fly zone" over Libya might actually happen. If it does, it will mean the traditional Western interventionism will have won over President Barack Obama's fear of dabbling in the Middle East.

A no-fly zone probably wouldn't help the rebels an awful lot. But that is not its purpose. It would ease troubled souls in the West and satisfy those who feel something must be done without being over concerned about the consequences or logical implications of that something.

Sometimes silence says more than words. There will be an embarrassed void, and determination to look in the other direction, rather than any discussion of whether such a no-fly zone should be extended to Bahrain. The very thought is ludicrous. Nor will there be a peep about arming the rebels. No thought of sanctions. In the end, it is the more important country, and more important region as far as the US is concerned. So no-one will want to talk about how to respond to any excesses.

But first, Libya. The dynamic is changing. Col Muammar Gaddafi is apparently poised to win, or at least win enough territory to split his country. Despite the Obama administration's extreme reluctance about a no-fly zone, one of their conditions has been met. The Arab League is behind the call. The French and the British are gung-ho for patrolling the skies and are drafting a UN resolution. Even US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has rowed back a little bit from his initially dismissive remarks.

A no-fly zone is a gesture, a symbol. I happened upon this blog post earlier today, discussing symbolic behaviour in a completely different political context, but the author's point is that it is more about self-validation than problem solving.

For Col Gaddafi seems to be doing pretty well murdering his enemies using only violence at ground level. Arming the rebels is another alternative. The danger is that they turn out to be not so good guys or indulge in massacres of their own. And of course it doesn't deal with the main point that training and organisation are as important as hardware. Invasion by troops is, of course, the sure-fire way to achieve regime change from the outside. Curiously, no-one seems that enthusiastic.

But the advocates of action haven't yet focused on Bahrain, where Saudi troops have been called to support the government. Of course, there are huge differences. Col Gaddafi has already killed a lot of his own people. The Bahraini authorities swing between tolerating and repressing opponents but there's been no massacre, no murderous attacks on protesters. This is a series of demonstrations, not a civil war. But presumably the Saudi troops aren't there to help enforce traffic regulations.

If this is about principle, then presumably those who want to intervene in Libya should at least promise protection to the Bahraini opposition as a warning to the authorities. A few jets swooping over head to make sure the military on the ground don't misbehave, perhaps? This is, of course, a fantasy. President Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, has at least sounded concerned:

"We are calling on the Saudis, the other members of the GCC countries, as well as the Bahraini government, to show restraint; and that we believe that political dialogue is the way to address the unrest that has occurred in the region, in Bahrain and in other countries, and not to in any way suppress it."

They may listen. There may be no violence. If there is, it raises great questions. Despite President Obama's earnest urgings, Bahrain is not likely to turn into a democracy and the prospects for fair and free elections in Saudi Arabia are even more remote. Even these limited attempts to push them in that direction have soured relationships. While Obama's urgings have been timid, he has at least made a few noises. Those who want Top Gun over Libya don't even seem to have noticed the extraordinary events down the Gulf.

PJ and an accused man's nightwear

Mark Mardell | 14:40 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011

Comments

If you are out and about in Washington today, between the US state department and the White House you might see a group of half-naked people in chains. They are protesting about the treatment of Bradley Manning and promise "other creative visuals".

Private Manning is the soldier accused of being behind handing about a quarter of a million secret documents to Wikileaks.

However creative they get, the protesters will hardly focus people's attention more than a retired air force colonel and government appointee. PJ Crowley, Hillary Clinton's spokesman and the state department's on-camera briefer, has resigned after calling Pte Manning's treatment "ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid".

His comments to a small group at a top American university were first made public by my colleague Philippa Thomas, in her blog. According to Bradley Manning's lawyer he's being kept in solitary confinement in a windowless cell for 23 hours a day. He's being treated like this, even before trial, because he is regarded as a risk to himself, although apparently few agree with this assessment. Last week the authorities at the Marine prison in Virginia stripped him of his underpants at night, because he made a sarcastic joke that if he really wanted to harm himself he could hang himself with his boxer shorts. American officialdom has a problem with jokes at the best of times, regarding humour as a subversive activity, so it is easy to see that they would react this way, although they deny it was punitive.

PJ Crowley, on the other hand, often has a smile around his lips and has a dry sense of humour, but his actions over Pte Manning are deeply serious and I feel sure he knew what he was doing. Various reports suggest he was not a favourite of Mrs Clinton's and was heading towards the door anyway. His resignation statement is earnest, if a bit convoluted:

"The unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a serious crime under US law. My recent comments regarding the conditions of the pre-trial detention of Private First Class Bradley Manning were intended to highlight the broader, even strategic impact of discreet actions undertaken by national security agencies every day and their impact on our global standing and leadership. The exercise of power in today's challenging times and relentless media environment must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values."

Which I translate as: "We can't preach to the world about human rights and freedom if we carry on like this." It is a point President Barack Obama has often made in the past, but he seemed less than delighted when asked about Pte Manning last Friday. He said: "I have asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards." Pentagon officials, he said, "assure me that they are. I can't go into details about some of their concerns, but some of this has to do with Private Manning's safety as well."

Embarrassing the president probably sealed PJ's fate. But he's made his point, even without the dramatic visuals.

US sees Gaddafi going, going... nowhere

Mark Mardell | 18:55 UK time, Thursday, 10 March 2011

Comments

President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that Col Muammar Gaddafi should go, now his top adviser on intelligence has said the Libyan ruler will probably win his battle to stay in power.

While the Americans aren't going as far as the French and recognising the Libyan rebel leadership, they have broken off relations with the embassy in Washington and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Libyan opposition leaders next week.

The director of national intelligence General James Clapper has told politicians on Capitol Hill that over time, in the longer term Gaddafi will probably prevail because he has better trained and equipped troops. He added that another possible outcome was the break-up of Libya into what he called three semi-autonomous mini states.

The president's National Security Adviser Tom Donilon later rejected this. He suggested this was a "static and one-dimensional analysis", whereas Libya had to been seen through a multi-dimensional and fluid lens. He suggested the pressure of sanctions and the threat of the international community were more important. He said that history was on the side of Libyan people and the "fear dynamic is lost and the overwhelming force analysis changes". Gen Clapper seems to agree with Mao that "power grows from the barrel of a gun", Mr Donilon seems to have a Hegelian view of history, as the "unfolding of the mind of God".

Philosophy aside, politicians told Gen Clapper that his view of the outcome meant that the US should tip the balance. But the general didn't answer the sort of questions that amounted to statements, from politicians who felt his testimony meant imposing a no-fly zone was urgent.

In another committee, Mrs Clinton had answers of a sort. She said her main aim was to build an international consensus for any action. It was critical, she said, "especially for us". She was remarkably frank, saying there was ambivalence because people don't know the best way to get rid of Col Gaddafi and don't know what the opposition represents. She concluded that every option imaginable was being looked into "but if this were easy, we would have already done it".

President Obama wants America to have a new relationship with the world, and this is a critical test of his approach. To some, this looks like hesitation and weakness... It always has and always will irritate those who want an unapologetically aggressive America storming ahead, out front, leading those who have the guts to follow.

That is not Mr Obama's way. In part, he was elected in reaction to the Iraq war and he's very serious about acting in concert with the international community. His style is very deliberative, very rigorous, rather academic. In the White House there are lots of meetings that seem to some almost like study groups; history books are discussed, options examined from every angle. I am told they worry about the questions a distinguished conservative commentator, George Will, set out recently.

For a group who want to base decisions on facts there's a frustration that they are flying blind: there's been very little intelligence about a coming revolution and a shambolic opposition. I suspect Gen Clapper's purpose was to show off how much intelligence had been gathered on the military kit on the ground.

In the White House there's a curious mixture of an emotional attachment to the cause of democracy-loving rebels and a hard-headed pragmatism. Libya is not seen as a vital national interest, in the way that Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen are, and they don't want to get tied down in one country when more important challenges may be around the next corner.

The idea of a no-fly zone, dismissed with scorn by many insiders, has become a bit of a symbol, about how far the world is willing to go. Europeans (deliciously the French in particular) and others seem torn between demanding America doesn't barge around like a bully and wanting it to take action to topple a dreadful dictator when he attacks his own people. The Obama administration is using the crisis as a test case. The key is whether the Arab world, the Muslim world will "cowboy up" and back some action. Although Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton have been crystal clear that UN backing is need, an invitation from the Arab League, or a coalition of Arab nations, to take action might tip the balance, as would an attention-grabbing massacre on the ground: at the UN there talk is of a "Guernica moment".

If neither happens, Mr Obama may simply accept that an autocrat he has called on to go, is going nowhere.

Who will take the lead on Libya?

Mark Mardell | 19:05 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Comments

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.


US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it very clear that the US is not going to lead the call for a no-fly zone over Libya, and if it is going to happen, it must go through the United Nations.

But I was at the Senate this morning, and some aren't happy with this plan.

Senator John Kerry, usually pretty much in line with the White House, told me:

I think we have to prepare for a no-fly zone. It's the interests with respect to the outcome in Libya that are critical to all of us. There are a lot of issues at stake, not the least of which is the leadership by a clearly delusional, megalomaniacal person who is out of touch with his own people's interests. And I think to allow him to slaughter from the air, against a popular movement of his people, without recourse is a serious question for all of us - but there are other issues regarding security, national security, international security that are very, very significant.

There's little doubt US President Barack Obama is risking being accused of dragging his feet, partly because he thinks the US is doing a lot, and doing things that are more practical and effective than a no-fly zone - but also because one of his big foreign policy imperatives is to counter the image that America is interfering in the Muslim world.

I asked Senator Kerry about that:

I really think, first of all, they're asking for it, they need the help, and secondly, [Gaddafi]'s engaging mercenaries from other countries to kill his own people, so I think on the moral equivalencies here, if you're saving Muslim lives - which is what the purpose is - people are perfectly capable of understanding that.

As events move swiftly in Libya, the international community is not in a rush. There's a Nato meeting now, then an Arab League meeting during the weekend. It would need very clear signals from both of those meetings to get the UN moving, and even then I don't see many signs of the Russians and the Chinese changing their traditional opposition to UN backing for military intervention.

America will not give a lead. No-one else seems in a rush to do so either.

Obama's humiliating concession on Guantanamo

Mark Mardell | 21:15 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

Comments

One of Barack Obama's very first acts as president was to sign an order closing the detention centre for suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.

The administration says that is still its aim.

But now, the president has ended a two-year-old ban on trying detainees in military courts and authorised a new procedure for holding the prisoners without trial.

The White House is dressing this up as the resumption of military trials after tightening up safeguards and after the introduction of new reviews of the cases of those held without trial.

Mr Obama's aides say they want to sign up to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of such prisoners.

They say it is "unwise and unnecessary" to cut off the possibility of trial in federal civilian courts and will try to overturn the restrictions on those trials that Congress passed last year.

But it is hard to disguise the fact that Mr Obama's lofty ambitions have been in a two-year-long collision with the mood of the country - or at least that of the vocal politicians who say they represent America.

Plans to try Guantanamo detainees in ordinary courts, as criminals, on US soil provoked outrage from those who said the move would have put Americans in danger. They thought the very act of bringing such dangerous men to the US was risky, and argued it raised the danger that they would be found not guilty and released.

But underlying all this is a conviction that the alleged al-Qaeda members are neither criminals nor enemy soldiers but something other and worse and do not deserve the safeguards afforded by modern societies to either category.

In particular, there's been a strong movement against the plan to try the man described as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks - Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - to trial in New York. Although senior administration officials would not comment on individual cases, it seems likely he will be tried by a military tribunal. They say the next round of charges may come within days or weeks.

This is all pretty humiliating, but the president has to clear the decks of such contentious issues well before next year's election.

Mr Obama made a very clear attempt to break with the past within days of becoming president, declaring the US did not have to "continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals".

Just under two years away from another election he may still feel the same but he has recognised that for many, safety beats ideals, hands down, every time. It is a symbolic compromise with the political reality in America.

Palin asks if US ready for 'unconventional' candidate

Mark Mardell | 15:55 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

Comments

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin is pondering whether the American people are ready for an "unconventional" candidate.

In an exclusive interview with my colleague Jackie Long for Newsnight, she says she sees her unconventionality as a strength and explains that it means she wouldn't let "a political machine get in the way of what is right for the voters".

Mrs Palin also says that the amount of cash in US President Barack Obama's war chest is another factor, and says if she did decide to run she would have to put up with "a lot of BS from the media".

But what is also striking from the great Newsnight piece filmed in Alaska (watch it here) is that neither the Tea Party conservatives in Mrs Palin's home town nor conservatives in the Alaskan gun club who very much like Mrs Palin are willing to endorse her enthusiastically as a presidential candidate.

It's not her conservatism that's at issue, but whether she is right for the job - whether she is ready for the job.

Then there is the Karl Rove faction.

The man credited as being "Bush's brain" seems concerned that President Palin would use her own brain and not be constrained and guided by those around her. He, not a shrinking pinko violet himself, feels she is too unconventional, and plain wrong.

While many Republicans would be gloomy about the thought of her as a candidate, Democrats might be thrilled.

She would fire up their base, bringing out voters who other wise stay at home.

But will she run?

I've never really bought the line that Mrs Palin is only in it for the cash and fame. She is very political, very ambitious, and I am sure she wants to be president.

By 2016, her moment might have passed. The Tea Party might be down the drain, she might be old news. I don't get the feeling that patience is one of Mrs Palin's virtues.

But then again, the prospect of a few more years of unconventionality and a few more years to build her own war chest might make make waiting look more attractive than running in a lacklustre field and still losing to a more mainstream Republican.

Keeping on the right side of history

Mark Mardell | 20:28 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011

Comments

Opposition fighters in Libya

President Barack Obama, speaking alongside his Mexican counterpart after a White House meeting, told those close to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi that they were on the wrong side of history. "They should know history is moving against Col Gaddafi," he said. He added that the Libyan leader should "step down from power and leave".


But the president himself is concerned about being on the right side of history. He said that all options were on the table, including a no-fly zone, and that the US did not want be hamstrung if there was chaos on the ground, so he wanted the "full capacity" to react rapidly.

However, he stressed America's role in giving in humanitarian aid, rather than taking military action. He announced that US aircraft would be used to take home Egyptians stranded on the border between Libya and Tunisia, and talked of plans to send food into Tripoli if that became necessary. He noted that in the recent protests over the Middle East, no anti-US sentiment had been seen. He wanted people in the region to see America as acting on the right side of history, but doing so as part of the world community.

It is clearer than ever than Mr Obama does not want a no-fly zone or any other sort of military action unless it has clear UN backing, or at least support from others apart from the UK and other traditional European allies. He wants the US to be admired for helping people, not bombing their enemies. That means the no-fly zone probably won't fly.

I suspect the Obama administration sees it as rather a distraction, dramatic and headline-grabbing, but neither as effective as putting legal and financial pressure on Gaddafi's henchman, nor as urgent as easing the crisis on the border.

Flip flop and fox, when will they fly?

Mark Mardell | 18:14 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Comments

Newt_Gingrich_Finger.jpgPut your right leg in, put your right leg out. Some of the Republican Party's finest are dancing around the country doing the presidential Hokey Cokey. They won't say they will, they won't say they won't.

But have we just had a big fat hint from the Fox News network?

The conservative cable news network employs several high profile Republicans, and it has just suspended two potential candidates
it has contributor arrangements with, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, both of whom have signalled possible runs for the presidency. This was the on-air announcement:

"The suspension is effective for 60 days. Then, on 1 May, their contracts will be terminated unless they notify Fox that they are not running for president. Now, this has been contemplated from the start, from the very beginning, but it is effective today.


"This is Fox policy. This is the announcement being made today, and it does not preclude other announcements that may be made in the future."

Three others, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and John Bolton, stay on the books. Does that mean they have given their bosses at Fox a clue about their intentions? Maybe not. Maybe their words of wisdom are better box office.

Undeclared potential candidates are political stars. They can earn big fees for speaking.
But nobody is going to pay a candidate for selling themselves. But is there a political, as well as a commercial, advantage to the Republican fan dance?

Newt Gingrich, the buzz went, would be the first serious contender formally to throw his hat in the ring - well, sort of formally. He would set up an exploratory committee. Major news organisations were briefed that this was going to happen on Thursday. Then eight hours later he wasn't.

His team issued a statement: "Gingrich is not travelling to Georgia to announce that he will form 'an exploratory committee'. To be clear, while Speaker Gingrich is in Georgia on Thursday, he will NOT announce the formation of an exploratory committee."

That doesn't mean he never will.

No-one seems keen to make it official. In the last political cycle, things started flying much sooner. John McCain set up a committee straight after the mid-terms in November 2006 and announced he would run in late February 2007. Mitt Romney had declared by early February. Now we are into March, but it's not always like that. Three elections ago, John Kerry left it until September of the year before.

Some say the delay this time is because President Barack Obama is looking hard to beat, a tougher opponent than he was in the glory days straight after the mid-terms. Why not wait until 2016?

But Hans Noel, a professor of government at Georgetown University, tells me it's in the Republican Party's interests to play it long.

"Right now it is tricky for the party, with an emboldened ideological group, the Tea Party, a group uninterested in compromise. Whereas, others are looking ahead to an improved economy. Incumbents are always hard to beat - so there's no reason to rush when it is tricky."

Others feel it helps Mr Obama, allowing him more time to be presidential before he has to descend into the partisan fray.

Still, the field is narrowing. Republican Mike Pence from Indiana and South Dakota Senator John Thune have dropped out. Donald Trump has dropped in. Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney look almost certain to run. Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels are still thinking about it. And Mrs Palin? She's off to make a major speech in India later this month.

It would be deeply weird to make a big announcement abroad, but she is the biggest tease of the lot, seemingly on a mission to keep us all guessing.

Cameron's no-fly zone fervour not shared by US

Mark Mardell | 22:54 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Comments

David Cameron

Where would Tony Blair have been without George W Bush?

When accused of slavishly following America's lead over the invasion of Iraq, Mr Blair used to joke: "It's worse than that, I believed in it!"

But what would he have done if Mr Bush hadn't been keen on invading Iraq? The UK could hardly have done it alone.

The reason I ask, of course, is because UK Prime Minister David Cameron seems considerably more enthusiastic about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya than the US government.

On Tuesday, he told Parliament he had instructed the military to develop plans for such a move.

"We will look at each and every way of stepping up pressure on this regime. Further isolation of the regime by expelling it from international organisations. Further use of asset freezes and travel bans to give the clearest possible message to those on the fringes of the regime that now is the time to desert it. And we do not in any way rule out the use of military assets. We must not tolerate this regime using military force against its own people."

Nick Robinson, my colleague at Westminster, says he sees it as a defining moment in Mr Cameron's foreign policy.

Indeed, I've heard the phrase "his Blair moment" used.

Some Americans feel he is giving the moral lead that is lacking from US President Barack Obama.

To read the British press, you would think that the UK was the world's only superpower and that Mr Cameron would execute his plans, drawn up by the chiefs of staff, quite independently from any other country.

I suppose technically the Royal Air Force could, on its own, take on Libya, knock out its radar and missile defence systems and patrol the skies. But I am not sure it would want to do so.

The mood here in Washington is distinctly tepid.

When US defence secretary Robert Gates, who also served under Mr Bush, was asked about a no-fly zone, he said:

"I would note that the UN Security Council resolution provides no authorisation for the use of armed force. There is no unanimity within Nato for the use of armed force. And the kinds of options that have been talked about in the press and elsewhere also have their own consequences and second- and third-order effects, so they need to be considered very carefully."

Gen James Mattis, head of US central command, said such an operation would be challenging: "You would have to remove air defence capability in order to establish a no-fly zone. So no illusions here, it would be a military operation - it wouldn't be just telling people not to fly airplanes."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that there were arguments for and against. Tellingly, she referred to a degree of worry in the Arab world that America would invade Libya. That, she assured her audience on Capitol Hill, was not going to happen.

This lack of enthusiasm for a no-fly zone could change, of course. A concerted air campaign by Col Gaddafi, shown nightly on the news, could well alter administration minds.

But until that happens, Mr Obama doesn't seem to want more military action.

So what is Mr Cameron doing? Sabre-rattling on behalf of the Americans, striking a pose he thinks will be popular, providing a lead to a reluctant president?

Mrs Clinton's testimony made it clear she thought America should lead the world through what she called "smart power".

The UK still has to get used to a world where that doesn't always imply smart missiles.

Sabre rattling aimed at ears of Gaddafi

Mark Mardell | 14:05 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Comments

US_jets.jpgAre America and the UK going to pit their military might against the Gaddafi regime?

Reading the British papers, like the Guardian, the Times and the Daily Telegraph, would suggest that we are on the brink of an assault. I doubt it, but it is certainly the impression the White House and Downing Street would like hanging in the air.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has explicitly talked about a no-fly zone. US warships are moving closer to Libya. David Cameron has ordered the RAF to look at plans for a no-fly zone. He even agreed that Britain could arm the rebels. This raises a whole host of interesting questions. What with? Rifles? Mortars? Tanks?

Given there is no such thing as a formal "rebel movement", how would they prove who they are? What if they use the arms to rob and steal? What if there is faction fighting? Will they have to give the guns back afterwards or can they keep them?

A no-fly zone, preventing Col Muammar Gaddafi's air force from bombing his own people is at least simpler than that. Although it is not a simple job, it is very much what the US and UK can do and have done in Iraq.

Diplomacy is much more difficult. For a start, who does it? Nato won't, without a UN resolution. When Mrs Clinton met the Russian foreign minister, it wasn't even raised. Given Russian support is necessary for a UN resolution, not raising the issue is a little odd if it is a realistic option. The Chinese aren't keen either.

Of course the US and UK can go it alone, without the UN or Nato, and perhaps with a few other friendly countries giving moral support. You could even think of a snappy name for such an alliance. How does "coalition of the willing" sound? Exactly.

The Obama administration might not want to follow the exact route former President George W Bush took. Even leaving that aside, President Barack Obama made it clear he is really worried about reinforcing the perception the US is throwing its weight around, imposing solutions in the Middle East. The new Egyptian government has already spoken out against military action in Libya. I would think Mr Obama would want at least one big ally in the region to join in if any action was taken, and so far none are stepping forward.

So this is probably sabre rattling. After all, the purpose of such a racket is to convince the enemy you just might draw the sword, if he doesn't back down. I could be wrong. We might yet see US and British aircraft flying over Libya, shooting down its jets. But if we do, it will be a very big moment for Mr Obama. I will update when Mrs Clinton has spoken on Capitol Hill later on Tuesday.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.