Updated at 9:15 p.m. est
Moammar Gadhafi is clinging to power on a gamble that he can buy his way into a protracted civil war while the world figures out what role, if any, it can play.
"In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy, or it could face a protracted civil war, or it could fall into chaos. The stakes are high," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Separately Gadhafi and the governments of the West are testing the will and fortitude of Libyan rebels -- Gadhafi with renewed attacks on the insurgents, and the West with its hands tied and left with little it can do to help topple the Libyan dictator.
For now, it is the rebels' fight alone, since it is no easy task to pull off a no-fly zone, militarily or politically, and that is taking off the table for a moment the Russians' predictable, and premature, warning against a military intervention in Libya.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was candid earlier today about what he called "a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options."
"Let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That's the way you do a no-fly zone, and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down," Gates said at a House Appropriations hearing.
"That's the way it starts," Gates insisted.
It is not easy to get a dictator who has dined out on thumbing his nose at the will of others to change his defiant ways.
The U.S. decision to move U.S. Naval ships closer to Libya, as well as NATO's on-going consolations over the possibility of creating a no-fly zone, are not enough to get Gadhafi to halt air strikes on protesters and rebel strongholds.
Gadhafi bombed the rebel-held eastern oil port of Brega today as two U.S. amphibious assault ships, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce, passed through Egypt's Suez Canal. The carrier USS Enterprise is also moving toward Libya.
President Obama will meet with top diplomatic and military advisers later today.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Britain are trying to learn all they can about the Libyan rebels and their politics.
"Yes, we should also be making contact with, getting a greater understanding of, the opposition forces that are now in Benghazi and in control of quite a lot of the country," British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday.
"We are trying to step up our contact with them so we can get to know them better – what their intentions are. And I don't think we should go beyond that for now, but clearly we hope this will come to an end more quickly," he added.
White House spokesman Jay Carney added that "the United States is using many channels -- diplomatic, businesses, (non-government organizations) -- to reach out to those in Libya who are in the opposition who are interested in creating a government that respects the rights of the people and meets the aspirations of the people."
Carney added, "I think the issue is we want to hear from and learn from and talk to those who have a desire to move towards a representative government that is responsive to the aspirations of the people and protects the rights of the people. So what it's called matters far less than what it supports and what it does."