WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama ordered his top military and foreign policy advisers to brief lawmakers on Libya Wednesday amid questions, doubts and even anger about his handling of the conflict.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and the top uniformed US officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, were to brief the Senate and House of Representatives.
"What is the ultimate outcome? What's the desired outcome, for example? If our policy isn't regime change, what is our policy?" Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asked on the eve of the briefings.
The closed-door sessions, expected to last most of the afternoon and into the early evening, came as forces loyal to Moamer Kadhafi overran the Libyan oil town of Ras Lanuf on Wednesday, scattering vastly outgunned rebels.
US lawmakers worriedly watching the see-saw battles in Libya have said they want to know how long the conflict will last, how much it will cost, and whether Kadhafi might still be in power when the dust settles.
Senators and representatives have expressed concerns about the conflict's impact on turmoil across the Middle East and US standing in the Muslim world amid the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and operations in Yemen and Pakistan.
And some have charged Obama failed to adequately consult Congress -- to which the US Constitution reserves the right to declare war -- before Britain, France and the United States started UN-authorized air strikes on March 19.
"The critical issue today is not the defense of Libyan democracy but the defense of American democracy," said Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich, who charged Obama had "subverted Congress and the United States Constitution."
Opinion polls have found the US public deeply divided on the president's handling of the conflict, on whether the ultimate goal must be Kadhafi's ouster, and on whether Washington should lead or be a supporting player to other powers.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday that Obama had done the right thing by using force to thwart a "slaughter" of Libyan civilians but charged that the plan to oust Kadhafi boiled down to "nothing more than hope."
"So if Kadhafi doesn't leave, how long will NATO be there to enforce a no-fly zone? That's a very troubling question," Boehner told reporters ahead of the 2:30 pm (1830 GMT) briefing for House members.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has backed Obama on Libya, said Tuesday he had told his party to "come loaded with all your questions" to the 5:00 pm (2100 GMT) closed-door session for senators.
"And then if in fact you want to do more legislatively, you're entitled to," Reid said, noting he had read his colleagues a 1973 law that restricts the president's ability to wage war without congressional authority.
US lawmakers could seek a formal vote declaring war or endorsing the US role in the clashes -- giving Obama wide latitude to act -- or one demanding an end to US operations within a 60-90 day time frame sketched out by the law.
The briefings came two days after Obama told Americans in a prime-time speech that though he would use force to protect civilians, an effort to oust Kadhafi by force would replicate the carnage and financial cost of the Iraq war.
Lawmakers worried that Obama had not mapped out an end game for the conflict as critics warn that he may have taken sides in an intractable Middle Eastern civil war, and fear a blow to US credibility unless Kadhafi is removed.
And there were congressional debates over whether Washington should arm the rebels -- with some saying that was the only way to even the odds and others worried about just who might end up with the hardware from Washington.
Clinton and Gates were also expected to face detailed questions in public on Thursday at hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee and its House counterpart.
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