Reports that France has persuaded Britain to agree to new terms for a ceasefire in Libya allowing Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi to remain in the country are a signal NATO knows its effort in the North African nation is failing.

Though the NATO bombing campaign against Libyan government targets continues, the public acknowledgement that “one of the scenarios” that could end the fighting will permit Qaddafi to stay in the country can only mean both France and Britain are coming to grips with the fact the insurgents cannot prevail. This means after months of bombing and incessant talk about Qaddafi having to go, the half-hearted humanitarian intervention could end in a fiasco that will further undermine the credibility of the West.

Despite formal recognition by Western countries, including the United States, as well as military aid and training, the rebel government in Benghazi appears no more capable of taking Tripoli today than it did months ago. While many observers thought Qaddafi’s defeat was just a matter of time, both Paris and London appear to be convinced that all they have bought themselves is a nasty stalemate that neither side has the ability to break. By stating publicly that Qaddafi may stay after the fighting stops, they are making it clear they have neither the will nor the patience to prevail.

This is very good news for Qaddafi. The talk of compromise from his opponents will convince any wavering supporters and even those opposed to him trapped in government-held territory that the dictator isn’t going anywhere. He now knows all he has to do to win is just hang on in Tripoli.

Although France and Britain may say this “scenario” would create a new government in which Qaddafi would not rule, this is nonsense. Even if these terms were accepted, it is more likely than not that Qaddafi would retain enormous influence. But more to the point is now that such generous terms are on the table, he knows he can hang tough and get far more. Indeed, with his ongoing presence in Libya guaranteed by his foes, there is no reason for him to do anything but keep fighting until his hold on power is assured.

How NATO could have allowed itself to be thwarted by Qaddafi is a puzzle analysts will study for years to come. Part of the answer comes from the slowness of the Western powers to act. Had all of NATO agreed to intervention in the first weeks of the insurgency, there is a good chance Qaddafi could have been swept from power without much blood being shed. While France and Britain waited for a dithering President Obama to finally decide to join the intervention, the tables turned on the rebels, and Qaddafi was able to dig in and preserve his hold on his capital. The president’s ambivalence about Libya was a fatal flaw. Though he was sufficiently moved to support the effort to bolster the rebels, he was too timid to commit our forces to a quick resolution of the situation when such an outcome was still possible. In the end, he was stuck “leading from behind” in a conflict his administration denied was a war.

For decades, critics of NATO have noted that without the United States, the alliance is merely an empty shell. Libya was supposed to prove the opposite as France and Britain took the lead. But now that both of those countries are starting to concede what is effectively a humiliating defeat, the truth about the weakness of NATO has been proven again. In the absence of genuine American leadership, democracy fails and dictators will triumph.