Is this really a change? For the last eleven days, the US has attacked Libyan military targets almost exclusively under the wide definition of “protecting civilians,” which looks more like air cover for the rebellion. It hasn’t worked very well to stop Moammar Gaddafi, as the rebels now have begun falling back along a long line, losing Ras Lanuf today after retreating in disarray from Sirte yesterday. Misrata is now under “intensified” attack from government forces despite the no-fly zone and its air-to-ground strategy, which has Congress worried about the likelihood of a “stalemate”:

Opposition members in Libya said Wednesday their fighters are working to regain momentum in the face of punishing assaults by forces loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi.

After days of dramatic advances by rebels, government forces have cranked up their firepower, pushing from Bin Jawad to Ras Lanuf, a key eastern oil town that the opposition seized Sunday, and launching escalated strikes in the western town of Misrata.

Now the US says that NATO may start attacking Tripoli itself, presumably to get to Gaddafi’s command and control functions, which makes perfect sense if the mission objective was regime change. There are no reports of massacres in Libya’s capital at the moment, at least none which NATO or the White House have publicized.If the mission is the protection of civilians, which is what the UN mandate states (which Obama said he would not exceed in his speech Monday night), how will bombing Tripoli accomplish that?  We will increase the odds for significant collateral civilian losses, not decrease them.

The only explanation that makes sense is an attempt to decapitate the regime, a legitimate goal if we knew the nature of the rebels and what would follow afterward.  CNN reports the “flicker of al-Qaeda” testimony from Admiral Stavridis yesterday in a dismissive fashion without mentioning that one of the rebel commanders was captured by the US in Afghanistan in 2002 fighting for the Taliban.  John McCain insists that the rebellion isn’t hoisting the AQ flag, but even Stavridis wouldn’t say that yesterday.

Clearly, air power alone won’t stop Gaddafi unless we just happen to get lucky and kill him, and the shift in momentum back to the government on the ground won’t encourage military units to defect any time soon, either.  We’re either looking at stalemate or escalation, as Obama and the West can’t afford to leave Gaddafi in power after these efforts to dislodge him.  We’ll end up with another Saddam Hussein in North Africa, right where he can wreak a lot of havoc in the underbelly of Europe.