Libyan rebels warned that their only bastion in the Western region, Misrata, would fall without more support from NATO.  Moammar Gaddafi’s forces rained artillery fire on the city earlier today, reportedly killing dozens of civilians in an attempt to force the rebels out of the coastal city.  The rebels called it a “massacre”:

Libyan rebels begged for more NATO air strikes on Thursday, saying they faced a massacre from government artillery barrages on the besieged city of Misrata, but Western allies squabbled over how to respond.

Rebels said a hail of Grad rockets fired by besieging forces into a residential district of Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, had killed 23 civilians, mostly women and children.

Aid organizations warn of a humanitarian disaster in Misrata, the lone rebel bastion in western Libya, where hundreds of civilians are said to have died in a six-week siege.

NATO finally responded, but with airstrikes on Tripoli rather than anywhere near Misrata:

NATO warplanes launched air strikes on the Libyan capital Tripoli on Thursday and state-run Al-Libiya TV channel reported that there were casualties.

“Tripoli is now subjected to air strikes. There are civilian casualties,” a presenter said.

Reuters correspondents reported hearing four blasts and saw plumes of smoke rising from the southeast of the city.

Heavy anti-aircraft fire was also heard, before and after the blasts.

This calls into question yet again the mission of NATO.  If the mission is to protect civilians from the depredations of Gaddafi’s forces, why bomb Tripoli?  Why not strike the siege on Misrata and attempt to take out the artillery instead?  The bombing of Tripoli looks like an attempt to decapitate the regime directly, or to convince Tripoli residents to conduct a coup and rid themselves of Gaddafi and his regime.

NATO met today in Doha, Qatar, where confusion seems to reign.  According to the Reuters report, France and the UK want more assets in the air to attack Gaddafi, but the rest of the coalition has balked.  They want to stick to the UN mandate of protecting civilians rather than intervene explicitly on behalf of the rebels.  Some spoke of sending “non-lethal” weapons to the rebels, as if that would halt artillery and armor.

Where is the US?  Hillary Clinton warned about “atrocities” in Misrata, but offered no further assistance to intervene.  Coalition members had hoped to get the US to fly specialized missions to strike Gaddafi’s forces and force a pullback.  However, a group of five nations that include Russia, India, and China want NATO to stop its air strikes and end the conflict.

In short, it’s a mess.  Barack Obama helped launch this war, and then pulled American leadership and forces to the sidelines.  What has followed is a sorry example of Western diplomatic and military leadership in the absence of American strength.  Even apart from the question of who exactly these rebels are — a question good enough to keep the US from recognizing them — the lack of clear goals and commitment to meet them has been an eye-opening experience, as foes of the West have also no doubt concluded.