I’m kicking myself for not predicting this, especially after yesterday’s grim Reuters report about how Qaddafi’s rebuilding some of his power while NATO jets zip by overhead — to the point where he might soon threaten Benghazi once again. (Expect a “de facto partition for a long time to come,” said one European security official.) Obama can’t pull U.S. support from the mission or else he’ll be shredded politically for weakness, but he can’t put American servicemen in harm’s way again after having promised that our role would be over in, ahem, “days, not weeks.” So we need to escalate, but we somehow need to do it without risking any more American lives.

Luckily, there’s an app for that.

“President Obama has said that where we have some unique capabilities, he is willing to use those,” Gates said. “And in fact he has approved the use of armed Predators.”

“What they will bring that is unique to the conflict is their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility on targets that have started to dig themselves into defensive positions,” Cartwright said. “They are uniquely suited for urban areas.”

The first drone took off this morning but turned back due to poor weather. Obama’s sworn up and down, remember, that the U.S. won’t use military means to dislodge Qaddafi since the UN mandate doesn’t reach regime change. But c’mon: Given the embarrassment to NATO from this lingering stalemate and the coalition’s interest in finding exile options for Qaddafi, does anyone think we won’t take a shot if he decides to make a public appearance in Tripoli in full view of a Predator? I’ll bet the crack White House speechwriting team is already preparing a day-after “let me be clear” statement.

Think Gates and Admiral Mullen are happy about this, incidentally? Background from HuffPo:

“It’s a mess,” lamented a senior U.S. official. Washington took the bold step of committing military force, but not enough to win. The administration waited to apply very limited military force until it was almost too late, and now, the official says, it has painted the U.S. “into a corner.” In the resulting stalemate, Libyan rebels and civilians are being ruthlessly pursued and killed while the United States, in effect, stands helplessly by.

The White House wanted the Pentagon to come up with a low-cost regime-change plan for Libya. Ideally, this strategy would have toppled Col. Muammar Gaddafi without bogging the U.S. down in another inconclusive foreign adventure. And by no means could the plan have included young American infantrymen advancing under fire across the sand.

The military kept insisting that no such option existed. A real regime-change operation, some officers argued, requires “boots on the ground.” That was a cost the White House, given rising domestic pressure to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, was unwilling to consider.

In long meetings and email exchanges, arguments over strategic details often led to more serious disagreements, the official told The Huffington Post. The White House thought the Pentagon was disrespecting the president by refusing to propose a politically acceptable action plan, while the Pentagon became furious that White House officials didn’t “seem to understand what military force can and cannot do,” the official said.

In other words, if HuffPo — a quintessentially liberal blog — is to be believed, O was for using the military to take out Qaddafi before he was against it. Proof enough that those drones will fire away if they get a clear shot.

Go figure, though, that the White House would be searching for an unrealistic, pain-free, unicorn-ish solution to a hugely complex problem chock full of potential unintended consequences. That doesn’t sound like the Obama we know. Does it?