Rejecting pleas from fleeing Libyan rebels for American air strikes to defeat the relentless advance by Moammar Gadhafi's armoured columns, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged Friday to continue "slowly tightening the noose on Gadhafi" to topple his regime.
The President hinted there was a line in the sand that would send U.S. warplanes into action but refused to be specific.
Great powers, including the United States, have an obligation to "prevent a repeat of something like what occurred in the Balkans in the '90s, what occurred in Rwanda," Mr. Obama said, referring to Western inaction while genocidal massacres played out in those countries.
But there was no suggestion of imminent military intervention and - without the United States - little prospect of a no-fly zone, let alone air strikes, to save the rebel fighters.
Caught between the desert and the sea, the ragtag army of ill-equipped and ill-trained rebels was falling back along Libya's coastal highway toward the eastern city of Benghazi.
Days of relentless bombardment by units loyal to Colonel Gadhafi, which used artillery backed by air strikes, has the rebels fleeing the ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf and has reversed the revolt's early successes. The rebels briefly held a string of coastal towns and strategic oil ports east of Col. Gadhafi's birthplace and stronghold Surt, but are now in retreat.
"We need more than diplomacy. We need a no-fly zone but we need more than that," pleaded Iman Bugaighis, a spokeswoman for the Provisional Transitional National Council, the self-styled alternative government, in Libya's second city of Benghazi.
Mr. Obama's own intelligence chief publicly predicted Col. Gadhafi's forces will win but the President ruled out, at least for now, the military intervention to defeat the dictator.
Despite urgent and dire warnings from some allies - notably British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said: "The truth is this: Gadhafi is still on the rampage, waging war on his people" - Mr. Obama refused to be pushed.
"When it comes to U.S. military actions, whether it's a no-fly zone or other options, you've got to balance costs versus benefits," he said. "The desired outcome from our perspective and that is that Gadhafi step down. And we are going to continue to work with the international community to try to achieve that."
While Britain and France want a NATO-imposed no-fly zone and serious consideration of air strikes, neither former power could stage or sustain an air war against Libya without the United States. On Friday, European Union leaders said the fighting could not continue on Europe's southern doorstep and followed France's embrace of the Libyan opposition group as a viable partner.
"European leaders were united, categorical and crystal clear: Gadhafi must go," Mr. Cameron said.
Without foreign military intervention, the plight of the rebels looks bleak. Last week's triumphal procession of enthusiastic hordes of volunteers in a long line of pickup trucks confidently headed toward Tripoli has been replaced by scenes of battered and shattered fighters falling back in the face of concentrated artillery salvos and tank fire. With no support, limited ammunition, no way of seeing the battlefield, no aircraft or naval support, the rebels are no match for even small units of well-armed and well-equipped military units.
Even Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of the rebel transitional council, concedes the rebels cannot win militarily: "Everybody should know that there is no balance between our capabilities and Moammar Gadhafi's," the former justice minister who defected early in the rebellion said.
While rebel leaders and U.S. intelligence make gloomy assessments about the outcome, the string of victories by Col. Gadhafi's loyalists has spawned much bravado.
"We are not afraid of the American fleet, NATO, France … this is our country. We live here, we die here … Libya is not a piece of cake; we are not a Mickey Mouse," boasted Saif al-Islam, one of the dictator's sons.
Col. Gadhafi, who has ruled for 42 years, is believed to hold billions in cash in Tripoli. Well-paid mercenaries and loyal units of the Libyan army and security forces, backed by a handful of still-flyable, Soviet-era warplanes have out-gunned spirited but militarily inept resistance by rebels in towns close to Tripoli.
The main push eastward toward Benghazi, threatens to extinguish the rebellion. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt where repressive dictators were ousted, Col. Gadhafi seems willing to kill thousands to reassert power. That could also inspire other repressive regimes in the Middle East to use force early and overwhelmingly to crush dissent before the pro-democracy contagion reaches them.
"Gadhafi is in this for the long haul," James Clapper, the U.S. director of National Intelligence, said. "I think over the long term that the [Gadhafi]regime will prevail."
Mr. Obama didn't contradict Mr. Clapper's "hard-headed assessment about military capability," but added the intelligence chief "wasn't stating policy."