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Congress members struggle to define message on Mideast, North Africa

By David A. Fahrenthold
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.

They didn't.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but modern Washington has defined this power very narrowly: There hasn't been a formal declaration since World War II. Obama could choose to impose a "no-fly zone," using airstrikes to take out Libyan defenses, without Congress's permission.

In a situation like this, "Congress can't make us go to war. But Congress can stop us once we have a war," said a staffer for Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), head of the Senate Armed Services committee. The staffer spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the committee's analysis. "The only power over here, really, is the power of the purse [to cut off funding for military operations]. And you can't use it in advance."

Instead, Congress's role has traditionally been to serve as Washington's chorus. In a foreign-policy crisis, legislators can suggest solutions, criticize administration ideas and serve as a presidential sounding board.

"Our job is to convince, cajole, encourage and embarrass them into doing the right thing," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees U.S. relations with the Middle East. In this situation, Ackerman said, he's been trying to get the Obama administration to be more assertive: "The administration has been cautious - which is understandable - but overly cautious at times. And I've been trying to push them a little harder, a little faster."

In Egypt, Ackerman said that the correct path was obvious. He said the White House should have tried to ease Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, out of power earlier.

"How do you throw this guy under the bus? Well, damn it, the bus just ran over him," Ackerman said. Mubarak eventually stepped down, but Ackerman said an earlier push might have given the United States more credibility among those who ousted him.

"The real question is," he said, "how do you help the people who are in the bus to steer the bus?"

But that was the last crisis. The current one is always harder - especially now, when legislators and staffers try to game out how U.S. involvement in one country would reverberate in all the others. There are a lot of ways this could go wrong: In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 58 percent of Americans said they thought the current unrest would hurt, not help, the United States in the long run.

In Libya, for instance, would a no-fly zone really stop the advancement of pro-Gaddafi forces against an unorganized rebellion? If it doesn't, staffers worry that could make the United States look weak.

"Worst case, you just still have Gaddafi," a figure that the United States had managed to contain in recent years, said Walter Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College who has studied Congress's thinking on foreign policy. "If anything, he's much less of a threatening figure now than he was 15 years ago, [so] from a cold realpolitik standpoint, maybe the right bet ... is to just do nothing."

Also, staffers wonder: What sort of precedent would it set to intervene on behalf of rebels there, while allowing key U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to squelch their own dissenters? What would be the effect in Yemen, where an already-weak ally is struggling to contain Islamic factions linked to al-Qaeda?

"This thing is like a virus. If you've got five kids, you don't know who's going to come down" with it next, Ackerman said. In Libya, he advocates a no-fly zone enforced by neighboring countries, with U.S. help.

Some of the most influential senators on foreign-policy have already called for a no-fly zone using U.S. air power. Sens. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) did so in a statement last week. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a Washington Post op-ed that the U.S. should be ready to impose one if "Gaddafi starts using his airpower to kill large numbers of civilians."

On the other side of the issue has been Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who has gone on cable television to say he worries about how U.S. military aid would turn out in Libya.

"We all know that military commitments, however small, are easily begun and, in this region particularly, very difficult to end. History shows that this is a region full of surprises," Webb said in a Senate Armed Services committee hearing. "I am of the opinion that it is not a good idea to give weapons and military support to people who you do not know."

Some of Obama's most prominent critics in Congress - Republican leaders in the House and Senate - have seemed intent on staying out of the debate. It appears they have calculated that the crisis can only detract from their domestic agenda, including efforts sharply to cut the federal budget.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has expressed support for Obama's statement that Gaddafi should give up power, but declined to criticize the White House's handling of the unfolding crisis.

"I don't think it is helpful to have 535 opinion makers in this building opining as to the President's performance when it comes to these type of matters with our national security," Cantor said in a recent press briefing.

On "Fox News Sunday," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was pressed about whether he supports a no-fly zone over Libya.

"I don't think I'm going to reach a conclusion in the middle of this conflict. That's why we have an administration," McConnell said. ""That's why we have a secretary of state and secretary of defense. I know they are on top of this and monitoring it."

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