WASHINGTON — If I were a Middle Eastern despot, I’d know how to handle the pro-democracy movement that threatens my rule: Crack down viciously, using deadly force against civilians, and make no meaningful concessions. The West will fulminate and posture but won’t intervene decisively. I can survive.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, Bahrain’s al-Khalifa royal family and others have surely been watching events in Libya and taking notes. The NATO-led attempt to dislodge Moammar Gadhafi is going nowhere fast. Bickering allied leaders have no stomach — or popular support at home — for war making of the kind that would be necessary to defeat Gadhafi’s army and take Tripoli. The regime is bloodied but unbowed.

One wonders why we bothered at all.

Seriously, as the Libya operation is now being conducted, what’s the point? The intervention surely saved many lives by halting Gadhafi’s forces just hours before they would have swept into the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. But now the conflict has devolved into a bloody stalemate in which Gadhafi clearly has the upper hand. How many Libyan rebels and civilians will die in the coming weeks, months, perhaps years? When we look back at the eventual human toll, what will we have accomplished?

President Obama made the intervention possible by giving his approval and committing U.S. assets. He declared that Gadhafi was no longer Libya’s legitimate leader and that his ouster was the explicit goal of U.S. policy. It was tough talk — and it must have unnerved the other embattled autocrats of the Arab world.

But it was also, in a sense, reckless talk. It was clear that Obama had no intention of plunging headlong into another war; he specified, from the beginning, that no U.S. ground forces would be deployed, and that command of the operation would quickly be handed off to our European allies. But it was also clear to military analysts that air power alone could not vanquish Gadhafi’s forces — and that NATO, without U.S. leadership, has never proved itself capable of organizing a three-car funeral.

The rebel forces are brave but overmatched. European air power alone has proved inadequate to protect civilians in contested cities such as Misurata — where hospitals are filled with the wounded and the dying, and where acclaimed war photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed Wednesday, apparently by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Gadhafi forces. On most days, the opposition is fighting desperately just to protect the territory it holds, not to seize more ground.

Allied frustration is mounting. French, British and Italian leaders are taking the next step and dispatching military advisers to try to whip the rebel forces into fighting shape. The United States, after deciding to send uniforms, body armor and vehicles, announced Thursday that it will use armed Predator drone aircraft in Libya.

This is “mission creep,” all right — but only in the sense that the military mission, as authorized by the United Nations, is limited to the protection of civilians. The political mission, as laid out by Obama and his European counterparts, is regime change. The effort so far won’t begin to close the wide gap between the allies’ stated goal and the resources being deployed to achieve it.

European officials have begun to grouse that the United States is not doing enough. Vice President Biden shot back, in an interview with the Financial Times, with a sharp rebuttal.

“If the Lord Almighty extricated the U.S. out of NATO and dropped it on the planet of Mars so we were no longer participating,” Biden said, “it is bizarre to suggest that NATO and the rest of the world lacks the capacity to deal with Libya — it does not. Occasionally other countries lack the will, but this is not about capacity.”

A telling blow against Gallic pride, perhaps, but not against Gadhafi’s army.

All this can only give hope and confidence to Syria’s Assad and Yemen’s Saleh as they dispatch troops and thugs to kill peaceful protesters. It can only bring contentment to the al-Khalifas of Bahrain, who know their deadly suppression of pro-democracy protests will be excused, and to the House of Saud, which should no longer feel pressure to deliver on the democratic reforms it has long promised.

Realism in foreign policy is neither good nor bad. Ultimately, it is inevitable. The United States and its allies are not willing to seize control of events in Libya and the region. Unless this changes, it is cruelty, not kindness, to pretend otherwise.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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