Obama Keeps Tabs On Libya While Touring Brazil

While the U.S. military participates in attacks on Libyan air defenses, President Obama continues his trip through Latin America. The White House insists the president can oversee the U.S. military effort while taking meetings with leaders and visiting tourist spots.

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Even as America's military is involved in bombing Libya, President Obama is continuing his trip through Latin America. The White House says the president can oversee the U.S. military effort while also holding meetings with South American leaders. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Rio de Janeiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: In an ornate theater in downtown Rio yesterday, President Obama said he wanted to speak to the people of Brazil. His talk mentioned Libya by name only once. But when he described Brazil this way, his meaning was clear.

President BARACK OBAMA: Brazil, a country that shows how a call for change that starts in the streets can transform a city, transform a country, transform a world.

SHAPIRO: President Obama described Brazil's peaceful transition to democracy in the 1980s as a role model for the rest of the world, including the Middle East and North Africa. He said Brazil was able to become the seventh largest economy in the world with diverse citizens coexisting peacefully because it embraced the values that people in Libya are fighting for today.

President OBAMA: We all yearn to live without fear or discrimination. We all yearn to choose how we are governed. And we all want to shape our destiny. These are not American ideals or Brazilian ideals, these are not Western ideals. These are universal rights, and we must support them everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Libya has dominated this trip, but usually behind the scenes. The president's public schedule has remained relatively unchanged, with events focusing on economics, jobs, and local culture. White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon told reporters in Rio last night that between all of those events, the president has been briefed on the military campaign in Libya almost constantly.

Mr. TOM DONILON (National Security Advisor): Gaddafi today, I understand, declared a cease-fire. Our view at this point and I was working on this just as I came over here - either that it isn't true or it's been immediately violated.

SHAPIRO: Like his boss the president, Donilon described the U.S. actions in Libya as part of a strictly limited military campaign. But he said the current operation is only phase one. And he suggested that the ultimate goal remains to drive Gaddafi from power.

Mr. DONILON: We're about this initial project first. Gaddafi has lost legitimacy. Gaddafi is isolated thoroughly. He will have continuing pressures on him moving forward. This is very important to do, obviously, for protection of the Libyan people, but also for the future in order to frame his future choices and scenarios.

SHAPIRO: Shortly after Donilon finished speaking, the president and his wife and daughters visited Rio de Janeiro's famous statue of Christ the Redeemer on lush green Corcovado Mountain. It was a vivid demonstration of the bifurcated way this trip has played out. Earlier in the day the first family visited a favela a slum called City of God.

(Soundbite of drumming)

SHAPIRO: These were not the drums of war.

(Soundbite of drumming)

SHAPIRO: The first family watched a performance of the Brazilian martial art capoeira, and they kicked around a soccer ball with local kids. Back at the hotel conference room, where reporters were asking questions about Libya, White House national security aide Dan Restrepo insisted that this president can keep many balls in the air at once.

Mr. DAN RESTREPO (White House Aide): The world obviously is a complex place with a lot of things going on at once. But it's precisely that, a lot of things going on at once, and the need to deepen our relationships in the Americas while he works a whole range of issues is not an incongruous message.

SHAPIRO: The decision not to change the public schedule for this trip may be partly symbolic. The president takes pains to emphasize that in Libya the U.S. is making a limited commitment to a broad international coalition. Cutting his trip short to fly back to Washington early could send the opposite message that this is an American project with the president taking the lead.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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