The news world is volatile, as one crisis competes for public attention with another. Libya is no longer news item number one in the United States and has been supplanted by the threat of a government shutdown that is coming to a head before this Friday's deadline.
The downgrading of Libya is also a function of a decline in interest. Hopes for a quick military victory or a Qaddafi decision to throw in the towel have abated. One day the rebels take Brega, the next day they are driven out of Brega, and the story repeats itself. The public and media sense is that everything has bogged down.
Increasingly, the term political solution is being bandied about. This is a phrase favored in Ankara, Beijing and Moscow but one that is starting to make inroads in the United States as well. Political solutions leave intaqct the question of what happens to Qaddafi. Does this imply the partition of Libya into East and West? Who keeps the peace between them?
NATO inherited the leadership of the Libyan intervention from the United States. It is increasingly bedeviled by self-imposed limitations - No troops on the ground and a code of ethics for the mission dedicated to protecting civilians rather than harming them.
This has played into the regime's hands. NATO leaders voiced their irritation at the strategy employed by the Libyan regime to nullify the coalition's air superiority. Qadaffi simply positioned his tanks and artillery batteries in close proximity to civilians using them as human shields.
Even ground troops occasionally injure innocent bystanders, but the risk is compounded when the coalition forces rely totally on air or missile power. Even in an age of precision, a munitions war is not all that precise. So the West is confronted with the dilemma that it cannot eject Qaddafi without running the risk of injuring civilians.
Since the protection of civilians rather than regime change was the presumed mission, one has to avoid injuring civilians even if it gives Qaddafi and his supporters a new lease on power. We are now witnessing the eruption of tensions between NATO and Benghazi as the insurgents clamor for more air strikes.
The there is a certain poetic justice to the situation. The West has encountered the human shields tactic before, notably in Iraq against Saddam Hussein. However, it is Israel that has been forced to tread a fine line when Hamas and Hizbullah used human shields to deter Israel.
Hizbullah also would position rockets near UN positions, daring Israel to strike at them and risk hurting the blue berets. However carefully Israel would strike, eventually there would be a case where air or artillery strikes would hurt civilians. Western public opinion would then come down hard to "stop the bloodshed". Instead of a clear-cut victory, Israel would at best be allowed a win on points.
Due to Western temerity about collateral damage, war has not been rendered more humane but less humane. The human shields tactic works against the side that recoils from inflicting civilian casualties, whereas the practitioners of the human shields approach have no similar qualms.
Secondly, instead of achieving a decisive result at the cost of civilian casualties, but in the long run inflicting less suffering to human life, the result is a protracted war and eventually a greater number of civilian casualties and more extensive human suffering.
During the Second World War, military installations and arms factories near civilian concentrations were considered legitimate targets. When the Allies were about to invade France, they made the hard but necessary choice of attacking targets even at the risk of inflicting casualties on civilians who were not enemy nationals, but people whom they intended to liberate. This policy was understood by the French population and the French Government in Exile.
It needs to be understood today.