TRIPOLI, Libya, June 24, 2011 — -- It had the sound of a victory celebration: Machine guns rat-a-tat-tatting in the air. Crowds of young supporters swathed in Moammar Gadhafi green celebrating, cheering.
"What's the news," I ask one young man with a machine gun slung over his shoulder.
"Gadhafi has won!" he tells me emphatically.
It did not take long for news from the U.S. House of Representatives to make its way here to Green Square in the heart of Tripoli.
The measure failed in a vote of 123-295, with 70 Democrats joining 225 Republicans in opposing authorization that would have given President Obama the power to continue the U.S. military operations in Libya.
What the jubilant crowd in Green Square did not understand is that the vote by the House is not binding and will not become law because it is certain to be defeated in the Senate.
But that will not take away the huge of boost of morale the vote has given Gadhafi's supporters. As they see it from here, it is evidence that the NATO coalition fracturing. The incentive to hang in and wait out the bombing campaign just got a lot sweeter.
It was not meant to be like this.
Four months ago, when Libya's revolution began, it looked like the rebels in the east would sweep into Tripoli and topple Gadhafi within days or weeks, just as similar revolutions had toppled dictators in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
But the so-called Arab Spring has withered here in Libya. The ragtag rebel army simply didn't have the expertise or the weapons to face Gadhafi's warriors.
With the revolution stalled and Gadhafi threatening to retake the east and slaughter the rebels and their families, on March 17 the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1973, authorizing member states to "to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country."
Days later, led by the U.S., U.K. and France, a NATO alliance began bombing Gadhafi's forces.
It was all meant to be over in weeks. The bombing would debilitate Gadhafi's forces, giving the rebels a chance to organize and assault Tripoli. But it hasn't worked out that way. After 12,347 NATO flights sorties since March 31, including 4,660 bombing sorties, the campaign in Libya has moved from "protecting the rebels" to "stalemate" to "deadlock" to "How did we get ourselves into this and how do we get ourselves out?"
It's not just in the U.S. Congress that hard questions are being asked. Over the last two weeks, the British government has faced an almost unprecedented open revolt from its top military leaders who say they simply do not have the resources to continue the air war in Libya while they are already stretched in Afghanistan.
The head of Britain's Royal Navy, Adm. Sir Mark Stanhope, warned the government that priorities will have to change in order to provide the resources necessary to meet commitments to the NATO-led action.The former head of the British army, Gen. Lord Richard Dannatt told the BBC that NATO's operations in Libya are reminiscent of the campaign in Baghdad.
"The Libya campaign has echoes of Baghdad in 2003," he said, recalling, "the very naive hope that a lightning strike into Iraq would put the levers of government into those of the opposition."
In Tripoli's Green Square, a young woman approached me. A fervent supporter of Gadhafi, she told me her name is Zahara.
"My message to America: 'Leave us alone,'" she said. "If we have a problem, we can solve the problem. We can solve our problem, not America."
I asked Zahara if Gadhafi will still be in charge if I come back in six months.
"If you come to visit Libya in six months, you will find Gadhafi here," she said.
If she had told me that when I was in Green Square two months ago, I would have been skeptical. Today, I am not so sure.