The civil war in Libya, the length and result of which is of course unknown, has shown the USA and the European powers to be sufferers of what Winston Churchill once described as a "disease of the will".
When the great man spoke those words he was of course speaking about the British Empire and its apparent lack of determination to continue being the British Empire, especially in its prize possession of India. He was in effect saying that giving up the empire was not inevitable and could be avoided if His Majesty's government so desired.
The same is true in Libya, especially for the USA, which now stands as Britain once did as the world's leading superpower. If the USA wished, it could impose a no-fly zone on Libya tomorrow and if they really felt like it they could do serious damage to Colonel Gaddafi's land forces by enforcing a (somewhat imaginatively named) "no drive zone".
This has quite obviously not happened and the continued dithering of the West in general and the USA in particular appear to have emboldened the "Mad Dog", who is proving himself to be much more rational than his dress sense and speeches would suggest.
The key problem is that those with the power to act do not seem to have a clear foreign policy "doctrine" (as American's like to say) by which to act. While George W. Bush and the "Crazy Reagan" (as Gaddafi likes to say) would no doubt have told the sixth fleet to have given the Libyan airforce a good blasting or even ordered a fully fledged military intervention with ground troops, Obama hesitates and Europe debates and grandstands while doing nothing.
Since the invasion of Iraq, politicians have been keen to say that they would rather do things multilaterally through forums like the United Nations, than take immediate unilateral action.
Now to take a problem like Libya to the United Nations is rather like asking an illiterate to review The Complete Works of Shakespeare. A large chunk of the membership of the United Nations is made up of countries run by communist relics, socialist conspiracy theorists, Islamist fruitcakes, Asian autocrats and African big men. Its Security Council permanently includes representatives from a "gangster state" and a one-party tyranny which has shown itself more than willing to kill large numbers of its own citizens in the not too distant past.
The UN is, in short, not the best place to bring ideas and proposals for the removal of dictators and tyrants.
Which means that the US government in particular needs to make a choice about what it wants to do. It can decide that actually we should not be helping the rebels at all no matter how much we see their suffering on TV.
There are good reasons for such a position. First and foremost is that we do not know who the rebels are or what would come after should they defeat Gaddafi. When the rebels were merely protestors there were instances of Gaddafi posters being defaced with Stars of David. Gaddafi may be bad but who knows if there might be a glimmer of truth in his ravings about al-Qaeda? A new government could be just as despotic but may have the added factor of being obsessed with Jihad in a way that, for all his other faults, Gaddafi is not.
The second reason is that it would be a "Wag the Dog" style response to the crisis, in other words politics by TV. The only reason military action against Libya is even being discussed is because the nation's troubles are in the news every night. Although events in Libya are certainly newsworthy, news editors could just as easily create a clamour for action against any country they chose by showing night after night the atrocities and suffering in North Korea, Syria, the Gaza Strip, the Ivory Coast, Pakistan, Burma, Cuba and a whole host of other UN member states.
It is not America's role to right the wrongs of the world, one could argue and if it were, why stop at Libya?
Alternatively the US could go for a more Bush-like approach by ignoring the part time talking shop and part time dictator's club known as the UN and say that that there will be no pro-Gaddafi jets flying tonight.
A ground invasion would follow and Gaddafi would be in captivity or in hiding within weeks. Of course an insurgency could follow as in Afghanistan and Iraq, but as well as the insurgency there would also be elections. One hopes that (in this admittedly unlikely scenario) the authorities would show that they have learned from some of the many mistakes made in post-invasion Iraq.
One might argue that after Iraq such an action would attract the hatred of the Muslim world, however one suspects that the type of Muslim that would hate America for an armed intervention, already hates the USA and probably did long before the removal of Saddam Hussein.
The Obama administration needs to decide which stance it will take. It can go for an interventionist policy of using military force to remove dictators. Or it can say firmly that no matter what happens on TV it's not the job of the US military to solve other people's problems.
As it is Western politicians have got into the terrible habit of describing the current behaviour of Gaddafi and the behaviour of (for example) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: when he brutally repressed protestors against the rigged election of 2009; as "unacceptable".
They clearly do not know what the word means because they continue to accept such behaviour. If it's "unacceptable" then logically they should use all means to prevent it. As it is they do nothing, showing that actually they are quite willing to accept murderous oppression, as they will do if Gaddafi triumphs.
Rather than this continued dithering and grandstanding about "unacceptable" rulers President Obama and other Western leaders need to decide if Colonel Gaddafi's rule really is "unacceptable" and take the appropriate and costly action. Or they must admit that actually they want to have nothing to do with other nation's internal struggles. Either they care enough to intervene or they don't a decision before it's too late would be welcome.