Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Egypt and Tunisia next week in the highest-level U.S. visit to the region since the popular upheaval that toppled the governments there. Clinton told a Congressional panel she will also meet Libyan opposition figures.
Clinton says she will be opening a dialogue with members of the Libyan opposition both in Washington and on her trip to the region next week, while again expressing caution about unilateral U.S. military action in Libya.
Amid a background of bipartisan calls in Washington for direct military aid to Libyan rebels or a no-fly-zone to halt air attacks by government forces, Clinton said the Obama administration is looking into "every option imaginable."
But she said past history in Iraq and Serbia suggests that no-fly-zone regimes are not a panacea. And she said absent international authorization, U.S. unilateral action "would be stepping into a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable."
"I really want people to understand what we are looking at," Clinton said. "And I will reiterate what the president has said and what our administration has consistently said: we are considering everything. But we think it is important that the Congress and the public understand as much as possible about what that actually means. And I can assure you that the president is not going to make any decision without a great deal of careful thought and deliberation."
Clinton will visit Paris on Monday to discuss Libya with fellow foreign ministers of the G8 group of world powers before her North Africa visit.
She told panel members that while Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi scrapped his nuclear program several years ago in return for international incentives, he still retains some chemical weapons and other, as she put it, "nasty stuff" in his arsenal.
She also disclosed the administration has suspended its relationship with the Libyan embassy in Washington, where pro- and anti-Gadhafi officials have vied for control.
But the United States has not broken off relations with the Libyan government and U.S. officials have been in contact, since fighting began there, with Foreign Minister Musa Kusa.
Clinton's appearance before a House Appropriations subcommittee was otherwise dominated by budget issues, including Republican moves to sharply reduce State Department and foreign aid spending for the rest of the current fiscal year, and in 2012.
Overall Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky told Clinton the United States simply "cannot sustain" the level of foreign affairs spending in administration requests.
"We are borrowing 42 cents on the dollar that we spend," said Rogers. "It is time that we get serious about reducing spending, putting a dent in our record-setting deficit. It is difficult to believe that the administration shares my goal to cut spending, when the 2012 State-foreign operations request of $59.5 billion is an increase of more than 22 percent above the 2010 bill."
Clinton said the increase is in large part the result of the State Department assuming responsibility for U.S. programs in Iraq with the withdrawal of U.S. military forces.
She said she shares the view that the United States must return to a strong fiscal footing, but that retreating from America's global leadership role would be counter-productive.
"I know we are tempted to try to step back from these obligations," added Clinton. "But every time we have done that, it has come back and hit us right square between the eyes. We left Afghanistan after we pushed the Soviet Union out, and now we are paying a terrible price for that."
Clinton said added State Department spending for Iraq and other front-line states is less than a tenth the size of the anticipated $45 billion reduction in Pentagon war spending next year. She said the United States needs to protect the investment, including the sacrifices of American troops, which it has already made in Iraq democracy-building.