Libya Overshadows Obama's Latin America Trip

President Obama gave the keynote speech of his Latin America tour in Santiago this afternoon. The theme was the need to forge a new relationship between the countries of Central and South America — and their giant neighbor to the north. But the focus of attention was his remarks on the situation in Libya. Scott Horsley speaks with Robert Siegel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Obama said today that he expects other countries to assume control of the Libyan military mission within days, not weeks. The president is traveling in South America, and he's getting frequent updates about Libya.

He stressed today that the mission is limited in scope and argued that the international community had no choice but to act militarily when Gadhafi was threatening his own people. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley joins us now, and Scott, is the United States trying to drive Colonel Gadhafi out of power by force?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Robert, there have been a lot of questions about that, especially after the strike on Colonel Gadhafi's own residential compound. The president and other U.S. officials insist that the aims of the military mission are strictly limited to protecting Libyan civilians, as authorized by that U.N. Security Council resolution.

Now at the same time, President Obama has said that Colonel Gadhafi has lost his legitimacy, that the U.S. wants him out of power. But Mr. Obama said today there are other ways to squeeze Gadhafi. That's not, he said, the aim of the military strikes.

President BARACK OBAMA: There are a whole range of policies that we are putting in place that has created one of the most powerful international consensuses around the isolation of Mr. Gadhafi. And we will continue to pursue those. But when it comes to our military action, we are doing so in support of U.N. Security Resolution 1973. That specifically talks about humanitarian efforts. And we are going to make sure that we stick to that mandate.

SIEGEL: That's President Obama speaking in Chile. Scott, the president and others have described the American role in this mission as front-loaded, with European and Arab partners carrying more of the load in the days to come. What'll it take to make that transition happen?

HORSLEY: Well, one of the things that has to happen, Robert, is they have to figure out just who will take the handover from the U.S. The regional commander, Carter Ham, said that's not as simple as just a handshake and saying you're it.

But even today, General Ham said, foreign pilots were flying more than half the sorties over Libya, a higher percentage than they were a day before. And Mr. Obama says he expects a rapid but responsible transfer of control.

Pres. OBAMA: The way that the U.S. took leadership and managed this process ensures international legitimacy and ensures that our partners, members of the international coalition, are bearing the burden of following through on the mission as well.

SIEGEL: Now, President Obama sent a letter today to congressional leaders, describing the military action over the weekend. But there's been grumbling from lawmakers who don't feel they've been adequately consulted here. What's the White House saying about that?

HORSLEY: Yeah, Robert, this is a perennial tug of war between the legislative and executive branches. Under our Constitution, it's Congress that has the authority to declare war.

But presidents have on occasion sent troops into harm's way without that kind of declaration. Harry Truman did it, of course, in Korea. Bill Clinton did it in Kosovo and Bosnia.

Now, over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the administration would certainly welcome a congressional seal of approval for this action but that the president is acting within his existing authority.

In his letter, Mr. Obama pointed to the Security Council resolution and his authority to conduct foreign relations and as commander in chief.

SIEGEL: OK, thank you, Scott. NPR's Scott Horsley.

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