Libya: Time to shift from the rhetorical to the practical
While Western politicians discuss options for helping the Libyan resistance, Gaddafi loyalists are busy re-taking lost ground.
It is a familiar dilemma for decision makers with echoes of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, and even of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The cynical view is that what we have seen so far has simply been verbal grandstanding by leaders who know there is public alarm at what is happening in Libya, but do not wish to commit themselves to military action there.
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy appears to have been playing this game when his people briefed last week that he was proposing air strikes against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
However, those emerging from last Thursday's Nato meeting in Brussels were quite adamant that neither France nor any other ally had proposed air strikes. The story seems to have been nothing more than hot air.
During the Bosnian War of 1992-5 it took years for a position finally to be adopted that Nato should put boots on the ground, and that military action was needed to curb the Bosnian Serbs.
It was such a prolonged, painful, and unedifying saga that it is little wonder that some of the key decision makers who endured it - such as former defence and foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind - are determined to move faster this time.
He has today advocated in the Times newspaper arming the Libyan rebels.
Will that work quickly enough though? When Western countries decided in the 1980s to provide (covertly) anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan resistance it took the best part of 18 months for the plan to come to fruition.
At one point Britain even flew the Afghans it had selected for training to a Gulf country, where they were taught how to use Blowpipe missiles.
Given the advances achieved by Libyan government forces in the past week, it is obvious that there is not time for that type of assistance. The help has to be given urgently or not at all.
It may be that the best thing the United States and European Union could do would be to aid the rebels by setting up a secure communications network, providing them with intelligence, and encouraging their leaders to think strategically about the defence of Benghazi and other strongholds in eastern Libya.
A handful of liaison teams, comprising no more than a few dozen personnel, would be sufficient for this.
The best prototype for this type of operation would be the clandestine assistance given to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan following 9/11, when teams of CIA and special forces galvanised an offensive against the Taliban that unseated them from power.
Of course the saga of Britain's ill-fated special forces mission to the Libyan rebels shows that such a move would be far from risk free. What is more, the key ingredient that was present after 9/11 - US willingness to risk its people in the field - appears to be absent today.
Even if MI6 and the CIA are still willing to take the risk of travelling into Libya, they would not be able to call upon air strikes in the way that they were in Afghanistan in 2001 - not yet anyway.
Indeed a couple of bolshie Libyan farmers seem to have upset Britain's plan to help the resistance leadership - or its first attempt to do so.
So the options today, like those in the Balkans, are far from simple or risk free. But if they are to have any effect on the outcome in Libya, they need to shift from the rhetorical to the practical within days.