Rupert Cornwell: Caution is Obama's only option. But it's working

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The Independent Online

The United States appears to have been taking a back seat in coping with the Libyan crisis, leaving its European allies and the Arab world to make the running. And that is exactly how Washington wants it.

After Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little appetite on Capitol Hill and absolutely none in the White House for another US-led attack on a Muslim country, at least without the declared blessing – and better still, the participation – of other Arab states. In the end, the Obama administration had little choice. However much it abhors the slightest risk of another Middle Eastern military entanglement, there was no way the US could be caught, as the well-worn American phrase goes, on the wrong side of history, watching from the sidelines as a dictator unleashed brutal violence against his own people.

With its authorisation of "all necessary force... short of foreign occupation" to protect the Libyan civilian population from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's onslaught, Thursday evening's Security Council resolution at the United Nations essentially makes the best of a bad job. The mission has been couched in humanitarian terms. The resolution's wording explicitly rules out an Iraq-style ground war. It follows approval by the Arab League of a no-fly zone over Libya, while White House officials made clear yesterday they expected logistical support from "Arab partners".

Even so, is the administration's heart really in a no-fly zone whose enforcement would inevitably largely rely on the overwhelming military might of the US?

During her trip this week to Egypt and Tunisia, Hillary Clinton seemed to suggest not.

"There is no good choice here," the Secretary of State told an audience in Tunis. Ms Clinton has repeatedly pointed out that the imposition of a no-fly zone was tantamount to war. But, she acknowledged, "if you don't try to take [Colonel Gaddafi] out... and he stays in power, there is no telling what he will do."

Like everyone else, the US is scrambling to keep up. And Washington must display an especially delicate touch, given its vast geo-strategic interests in the region, the need to preserve alliances and the importance of making sure the turbulence does not play out to the longer-term advantage of Iran.

Thus far, this cautious approach – one that reflects the instincts of Barack Obama – seems to be working. In Tunisia and Egypt, friendly governments were toppled but their replacements, at least for now, have not sought to break ties with Washington. Nor does radical Islam appear to be moving to fill the vacuum.

The Gaddafi regime's declaration of a ceasefire after the Security Council resolution is also probably exactly what Washington wants. Whether it is sincere, or merely a ploy to buy time, the next few days will tell. But at least it raises the chance of a peaceful outcome.

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