Tom Ricks dissects Gates's recent comments:
I would say the American position is that it will support NATO action if [the Arab League, the African Union or the U.N.] agrees to take the lead. I suspect that the American position may "stiffen," as Churchill would say, if Qaddafi's forces start slaughtering people. That would be a change in the "demonsrable need" meter. Sound legal basis is easy to handle. So that leaves the regional support for action as the major variable.
Gone was the festive spirit, the singing and posing with weapons that had characterized the advancing shabbab of a week ago, though they still fired their weapons in the air. Most of the young volunteer fighters seemed tense and angry, and a few were out of control. I watched one man in the distance throw a tantrum, screaming loudly in the middle of the road, apparently upset at the retreat. The remaining anti-aircraft batteries began shooting, and a panic ensued when some people thought they spotted a jet fighter. I had to dodge a flurry of large brass shell casings that spat off a heavy machine firing near me.
(Photo: A rebel Libyan fighter walks up to a sand hill where an old Libyan flag has been set while smoke comes from burning tires during clash with Kadhafi loyalist forces on March 11, 2011 some 10 kilometers east of the key oil port of Ras Lanuf. Libyan rebels appealed for arms today as they sent fighters into battle against Moamer Kadhafi's advancing forces, as France and Britain urged targeted strikes in the oil-rich country. By Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)
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