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Is Obama deliberating or dithering on Libya

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

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.

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