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West still waiting for Libya gamble to pay off

Hope isn't a strategy. But it was a major part of NATO's decision to launch an air war against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi three months ago.

Back in March, when the bombing began, the leaders of France, Britain and the United States hoped Gadhafi's regime would shatter under the shock and awe of modern munitions, and that Libyan military officers would take the advice of their European counterparts and overthrow their leader.

None of that happened. Instead, France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain's David Cameron, President Obama and their allies are mired in a lengthening war of choice that none of them cared all that much about in the first place.

NATO has just renewed its initial 90-day commitment to military action in Libya for another three months. Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, recently told the BBC that the bombing might last the rest of the year.

Oddly, though, the war hasn't become an overriding public concern in any of the countries in the effort — not even in Italy, where thousands of seaborne migrants from North Africa have landed as refugees and hundreds more, drowned in shipwrecks, have washed ashore.

What this tells us is that Western countries can wage war for months without arousing much concern in their publics, as long as Western troops aren't on the ground and Western pilots aren't being killed or captured.

Over time, however, if the war lasts longer, there is likely to be a political cost, particularly for Sarkozy and Cameron, the initial and most fervent promoters of intervention.

Obama may be less exposed. He has limited the U.S. role in combat operations, stonily rebuffing French and British pleas to contribute low-flying close-air-support planes, which the Europeans don't have, to the fight in Misrata. The French and British were forced to commit their own combat helicopters to the task, even though they are more vulnerable than the U.S. planes would have been.

NATO's leaders are scrambling to find tactics that might force Gadhafi to give up: military escalation, aid to the rebels, Russian mediation. They're contemplating outcomes in which Gadhafi might not have to leave Libya or stand trial before the International Criminal Court.

But Gadhafi shows little interest in a graceful exit, and NATO may soon face a tough decision. British newspapers have reported that former British soldiers are on the ground spotting targets for NATO airstrikes, reportedly under contract to an unnamed Arab regime. If the air war stalls, Britain and France will have to consider sending in ground forces as the quickest way to finish the job. Britain probably will send peacekeeping troops if and when the conflict ends.

In a contest of wills between NATO and Gadhafi, NATO still appears likely to win in the long run. Gadhafi is hanging on because his survival is at stake; there's no comfortable retirement plan for tyrants anymore.

But will this war — initially promised as a quick, low-cost intervention to prevent humanitarian disaster — still look like a good bargain if the bombing continues past Christmas? Or if the only way to end it is with NATO boots on the ground?

Helping Libya's rebels overthrow Gadhafi was a good idea in March, and it still is today. But the difficulty of actually reaching that goal should have come as no surprise.

No matter how appealing the cause, military intervention is rarely as easy or as cheap as it looks.