Congress members struggle to define message on Mideast, North Africa

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 12:40 AM

How difficult are the decisions the president must make about the turmoil in the Mideast?

Difficult enough that members of Congress - Washington's traditional back-seat drivers on foreign policy - have struggled to second-guess them.

As unrest in the region has spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya and Bahrain, there is little day-to-day role for the legislative branch. Instead, members of Congress have turned to the usual informal channels for influencing the administration: seeking private consultations, and making their opinions known in Capitol Hill hearings and TV appearances.

But the messages, from both parties, have been muddled.

Some legislators, for example, have called for the imposition of a U.S.-backed "no-fly zone" in Libya. But others have warned it might be a large risk for a slim reward.

And, even among those who want the U.S. to take a more forceful role in the region, there is dissent about what, exactly, that role should be.

"If [Libyan leader Moammar] Gaddafi remains in power, it's going to be a real tragedy, and a real blow to the United States," said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), chairman of a House subcommittee that examines Middle East policy.

So Chabot says he's urged more aggressive action - but he also says only the administration has the intelligence to know what that action should be.

"Without knowing all the details, it's difficult to say with 100 percent confidence … what should be done," Chabot said.

So far, the White House's response to the rebellions in the Mideast and North Africa has focused on diplomacy and sanctions. In Bahrain - where forces from neighboring Saudi Arabia rolled in Monday to restore order following protests by the Shiite majority - the White House urged restraint.

On the same day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met in Paris with a leader of the opposition movement trying to oust Gaddafi. But the White House has, so far, resisted calls from European allies and the Arab League to use U.S. air power to keep Gaddafi's air force at bay.

The Senate has passed symbolic resolutions, urging Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to relinquish power (he did), and asking the leaders of Iran and Libya to end repressive practices.

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