The US role in Lebanon has been called a quagmire, a slippery slope, and a case of trying to be both umpire and player. Politicians almost run out of metaphors, and they are certainly out of easy answers to the problem.
There is an almost palpable desire in this capital to extricate the American Marines from a faraway place where so many factions are fighting that only the experts keep count. Indeed, there is a growing feeling among some close observers that the Reagan administration might already be making plans to move in that direction.
But, as was apparent during flareups last week among both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, the path home for US peacekeeping forces is not yet clear. Even as members of Congress complain bitterly and GOP leaders voice public doubts outside of Washington, they move with caution when faced with taking action.
Item: House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr.'s first reaction to the recent, highly critical Pentagon report on US policy in Lebanon was to tell aides he wanted the troops out immediately. But by the time the Massachusetts Democrat had returned to Washington and met with Democratic colleagues, he had cooled down.
After the meeting, the Democrats huffed and puffed, but they gave President Reagan no deadline for removing the approximately 2,000 ground troops. Speaker O'Neill read a carefully worded joint statement saying that the status quo was unacceptable. He warned the Reagan administration to show progress soon, or else. But the Democrats did not say what the ''else'' might be.
Item: Back in his district, House minority leader Robert H. Michel (R) of Illinois had told the Peoria Kiwanis Club that the President should rethink his policy. Mr. Michel suggested moving the troops offshore and asking the Israelis to resolve the problem.
Then he came to Washington and attended a briefing with Robert C. McFarlane, national security adviser. And, like the month of March, he came out like a lamb, returning to the White House fold. He said he was ''satisfied'' with progress so far and optimistic for improvements, even if he did second O'Neill's warning that the President needs to try harder on the diplomatic front.
Members of Congress ''find ourselves totally detached in our districts,'' he said, explaining his switch. ''You're inclined to think no progress is being made.'' The White House briefing had reassured him, he said.
He warned that the United States would ''lose credibility in the Gulf states if we turned tail,'' and he noted that Israel ''has some interest here in what takes place.''
The pro-Israel lobby in the US has kept a low profile during the debates over Lebanon. It has supported the President, but not actively lobbied for keeping the Marines in Lebanon. One pro-Israel analyst remarked that, if the Reagan administration pulls the forces out, ''there's no way'' the Israel lobby would oppose him.
However, there is a consensus among Israel's supporters that a stunning defeat for the US in Lebanon could damage American and Israeli interests in the region. ''This has implications beyond Lebanon,'' says Ken Jacobson, director of Middle East affairs for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. He sees a decline in American prestige as helping the Soviet-backed Syrians and radical elements in the Middle East.
At the same time, Mr. Jacobson concedes that most Americans have little understanding of the issues. ''The public is not happy about American boys dying without any clear-cut reason,'' he says.
The Reagan administration, usually adept at communicating, has yet to provide easily understood reasons for its actions in Lebanon.
Capitol Hill briefings have been ''replete with clouded, muddled and oblique statements of intention and purpose'' said Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana in a letter Friday to President Reagan.
''The President has been very poor in communicating with the Hill,'' says one longtime Middle East expert. But, he adds: ''It's very tough to get through the myths and emotionalism'' in the Mideast. ''Nobody really understands Lebanon.''