WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama seems to have trouble giving the Libyan rebels what they need most in their life-and-death struggle to topple Moammar Gadhafi's repressive dictatorship: weapons.
As Gadhafi's well-armed forces continue to pound the rebel-held western city of Misurata, killing and wounding civilians and rebels alike, Obama was sending these brave insurgents $25 million worth of "non-lethal" equipment that included uniforms, tents and vehicles.
But the equipment these poorly equipped rebels lack most is the lethal kind -- ground missiles, grenade launchers, tanks and other high-powered weaponry -- not just to hold the territory they've taken but to inflict enough casualties on Gadhafi's mercenaries to convince the Libyan leader that he must flee the country.
Inexplicably, despite weeks of attacks on civilian populations and the rebels in places like Misurata, Obama was still trying to abide by the United Nations' "civilian protection" mandate that apparently forbids arming the rebels. But his resistance to doing anything more than providing non-lethal assistance, including logistical, humanitarian and other forms of support, has emboldened Gadhafi and his armies to step up their efforts and crush the rebel uprising once and for all.
Clearly, Obama's military withdrawal from a brief air offensive -- handing over responsibility to NATO forces -- has not worked. It was seen in much of the world as a cut-and-run decision, based in large part on political consequences in the 2011-12 election cycle.
In the aftermath of the U.S. departure, the NATO air offensive by Britain and France was seen as ineffective, as the rebels were driven out of port cities and other territory by heavily armed Libyan forces. Gadhafi troops entered cities, where NATO warplanes could not hit them for fear of striking civilian populations.
This week, amid the realization that Gadhafi was winning the war, the U.S. and its allies, France, Britain and Italy, were sending military advisers and other assistance. But these efforts may be too little, too late.
"The arrival of European military advisers and U.S. uniforms is unlikely to rapidly change the trajectory of the conflict, however, and NATO and its Arab partners in the Libya operation continue to count on their economic and diplomatic war of attrition against Gadhafi paying off in the end," Washington Post national security reporter Karen DeYoung wrote in the paper's lead story Thursday.
Obama and his advisers continue to believe that in the end their economic actions to freeze Libyan bank accounts were tightening the noose around Gadhafi, but that doesn't seem to be the case so far.
This week, Vice President Biden was sent out to defend the president's actions, denying that the U.S. military withdrawal had weakened NATO's air campaign and undermined the rebel cause. "It is bizarre to suggest that NATO and the rest of the world lacks the capacity to deal with Libya -- it does not," Biden told the Financial Times.
"Occasionally other countries lack the will, but this is not about capacity," he said. "This is about our strategic interest and it is not based upon a situation of what can the traffic bear politically at home," he said. Sure.
Nevertheless, the latest polls here showed that a large number of Americans were not happy with the way Obama "is handling the situation in Libya."
A Washington Post survey found that 49 percent now disapprove of his handling of the Libyan conflict, up sharply from 34 percent in March.
Significantly, 56 percent said they supported "the participation of U.S. military aircraft" in the NATO air campaign offensive, while 40 percent opposed it.
Still, Obama shows no sign of getting further involved in the Libyan conflict, even to help arm the rebels against Gadhafi's army, which now seems poised to defeat a ragtag rebellion seeking to liberate the country from tyranny.
He has bigger things on his political plate. Like a weak economy, high unemployment and $4-a-gallon gasoline, with 57 percent of Americans disapproving of the way he is handling the situation. And there is the growing battle in Congress over cutting spending levels, which have propelled this year's deficit over the trillion-dollar mark for the third year in a row, this time to more than $1.6 trillion.
But in the age of terrorism this is still a dangerous world, and the revolutions that have torn across the Middle East and North Africa are to a large degree part of the war against terrorist regimes -- a war that America should wholeheartedly support.
Not with U.S. ground forces, but with military aid and weapons to help the Libyan rebels fight for their country and their own freedom.
Qatar, one of the Arab countries joining in the NATO air campaign, is believed to be providing military weapons to the Libyan rebels. No doubt they would be happy to deliver U.S. weapons into the rebels' arms as well. It is a cause worth supporting.