WASHINGTON // After a rapid diplomatic response to the violence in Libya, the US government's momentum has ground to a halt over direct military intervention.
The US appears especially reluctant to engage its military in yet another Muslim country, not least because of the disastrous miscalculations that accompanied the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Indeed, in a speech last week to the United States Military Academy at West Point, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, appeared to rule out any major US military engagement in Libya.
"In my opinion, any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined," Mr Gates said.
But the US is also reluctant to entertain the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, marking a change of gear in Washington, which took the lead in ensuring that every diplomatic measure was brought to bear on Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader.
Col Qaddafi, his family and closest advisers are now under international sanctions, with their personal and government overseas assets frozen. An arms embargo has been imposed, Libya was suspended from the UN's Human Rights Council and Libyan officials have been referred to the International Criminal Court.
All this happened at a speed that, in the words earlier this week of Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, was "almost unheard of". But it has made little difference. Col Qaddafi remains defiant, vowing to fight "until the last drop of Libyan blood".
On Wednesday, forces loyal to the Libyan leader instead launched a counteroffensive against the opposition in the east. But even as Libyan fighter planes attacked targets around Brega, a strategic oil-refining and port city under the control of the opposition, Mr Gates poured cold water over "loose talk" that the international community should enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.
"Let's just call a spade a spade," Mr Gates said. "A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya."
Such an attack, he pointed out, has not been sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Russia has already voiced opposition to the idea and China remains hesitant. Both are veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council. And without a green light from the UN, neither the US nor Nato will intervene, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato's secretary general, said yesterday.
The military option remains alive, however. Mr Rasmussen said Nato is engaged in planning for "all eventualities," and Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said after Mr Gates's testimony on Wednesday that the possibility of armed action was being "actively considered".
The constraints on military intervention are two-fold, logistical and political. Logistically, with US and Nato forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a danger of "overstretch", said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security and defence specialist with the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Nevertheless, with Libya's population concentrated on the northern coast, a no-fly zone could be enforced "fairly effectively", Mr O'Hanlon said, should an aircraft carrier be deployed in the Mediterranean and with the use of Italian air bases.
And while it would divert resources and be costly, Mr Gates also made it plain on Wednesday that, "if it's ordered, we can do it".
More sensitive are the political considerations. A Rasmussen Poll from February 23 foun that 67 per cent of Americans want the US to stay out of political turmoil in Arab countries, and Washington remains reluctant to engage militarily in yet another Muslim country without the diplomatic cover of a broad international coalition.
Mr O'Hanlon specifically suggested that neither the US nor Nato should engage in any direct intervention absent the support of Arab countries, whether the Arab League or the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
"You don't want white people killing Arabs anymore," Mr O'Hanlon said.
The Arab League on Wednesday passed a resolution rejecting foreign military intervention in Libya. But the league left open the option that it, in conjunction with the African Union, might enforce a no-fly zone, should the fighting continue, according to Hisham Yousef, chief of staff of the Arab League.
The co-operation of the Arab League and African Union could provide the necessary political cover for the US and Nato to help enforce a no-fly zone, said Anouar Boukhars, professor of Middle East and North Africa studies at McDaniel College in Maryland.
Mr Boukhars also suggested that the US should see its involvement in Libya as an opportunity to, "for once, stand with the people of the region."
Much depends on what happens on the ground, however. Col Qaddafi's forces are entrenched in the west and the opposition in the east. A desert separates them, lending itself to a stalemate.
A period of attrition is likely and absent a spike in fighting or in the number of civilian casualties, the impetus for direct international intervention will remain halting.
Yesterday's airstrikes on Brega, which were strategic rather than punitive, suggests Col Qaddafi is cognizant that the international community has yet to reach a tipping point that will tilt the scales in favour of direct intervention. He will probably try to walk that line as long as possible.