The retreat of the Libyan insurgents before the more heavily armed Qaddafi forces illustrated a lesson that is frequently ignored, especially by countries endowed with modern technology: It is difficult or almost impossible to decide a war exclusively from the air.

The coalition air offensive has so far not induced the forces loyal to the Libyan dictator to break or defect. On the other hand, President Obama has explicitly ruled out the use of American ground forces and no one else has volunteered to launch a ground assault.

This leaves the option of arming the insurgents so they can bring to bear firepower equal to that of the regime forces. The problem is how that coincides with UN Security Council resolution 1973 that was presumably only about protecting civilians. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey  Lavrov, reacting to news reports about arming the insurgents, claimed the resolution was about protecting civilians and not arming them.

British Prime Minister David Cameron would like to exploit the broader meaning of the text of the resolution that allows "all necessary measures" to protect civilians and civilian populated areas. Since the insurgents are protecting civilians, one could  say that this includes arming them so they could afford even better protection.

However, even within the British Prime Minister's own coalition there are voices urging caution. In the United States, administration sources were forced to concede that they were not quite sure with whom they were dealing when speaking of the insurgents. While this argument could be used in defending towns that were obviously anti-Qaddafi, it would be stretching things a bit when the action shifted to pro-regime bastions such as Sirte.

The idea of arming the rebels will not necessarily sit well with all 40 countries that attended yesterday's London conference. Now that leadership has been handed over to NATO, Turkey may very well object to such a policy. NATO's secretary general Anders Rasmussen told Reuters on Tuesday, "there's no military solution, solely, to the problems in Libya," meaning that "all parties involved" have to seek a political solution.  Does the phrase all parties include Qaddafi?

The contradictions in American policy have become evident much sooner than Obama expected.

He has ruled out ground power but sees that air power alone won't do the job.

He wants a broad coalition, but decisive action to oust Qaddafi may lead to defections from the coalition.

He would like the intervention to carry a UN blessing.

However he is trying to push through a semitrailer truck on a bicycle lane.  Future attempts to get a go-ahead via an ambiguously worded resolution are going to be rebuffed. Obama wanted the façade of NATO to show that this was not an American show, but what happens if the new NATO director decides to rewrite the script?

Many foresaw these difficulties and Obama supporters such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman hoped that Obama would prove lucky and bring off a success in Libya despite his misgivings. As of now, it is not certain that Obama's luck is holding up.