AP Notes Obama's ‘Split-Screen Leadership’ As He Extends Friendship to South America, Attacks Libya

March 21, 2011 - 4:38 AM

Rio de Janeiro (AP) - Nowhere have President Barack Obama's foreign policy approaches been in starker relief than during his unfolding travels in South America. Right now the use of military power in Libya is overshadowing his lead-by-example public diplomacy in his own hemisphere.

As he heads for Chile on Monday after two days in Brazil, Obama has been a model in split-screen leadership. While he extended friendship to an increasingly influential Latin American neighbor, he also ducked into meetings and placed secure phone calls to approve missile attacks on Libya's air defenses.

He's not likely to escape the awkward, if not incongruous, contrasts during his stay in Santiago.

During a press conference with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera he will take questions for the first time since allied forces began enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya with jets and warships. Then he will deliver a speech, meant to address the entire Latin American world, praising the democratic transitions in the Americas and holding them up as models for the world.

It certainly wasn't planned that way.

"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," said White House national security aide Daniel Restrepo.

Obama, however, twice scrapped trips in 2010 to Indonesia and Australia, once to lobby for his health care bill, now law, and then because of the Gulf oil spill.

In this case, with conflict in North Africa competing for his time with friendship in Latin America, Obama aides say his determination to complete his trip illustrates his commitment to U.S. neighbors. Aides also pointed to elections in Egypt as evidence that not all is ablaze or in turmoil in the Middle East.

Still, his team was eager to portray him as fully engaged in Libyan decision-making, even as the photographs and television images showed him touring a Rio de Janeiro shantytown and gazing with his family at Christ the Redeemer, the massive Art Deco mountaintop statue that has come to symbolize Rio.

National security adviser Tom Donilon gave practically an hour-by-hour account of meetings, briefings and calls that Obama led or participated in, including a call to King Abdullah of Jordan on Sunday.

"The president has been personally and deeply involved in this every day," Donilon told reporters in Rio. Back home, some members of Congress began pressing Obama to do a better job identifying the goal in Libya. "The president is the commander in chief, but the administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is," said House Speaker John Boehner, and to "make clear how it will be accomplished."

At the same time, Obama's visit to Rio took on a lower profile Sunday. A speech originally set to be delivered outdoors before up to 20,000 people was moved into a historic opera house that seated about 1,800. His visit to the statue, initially set for Sunday morning, was moved to nighttime. Aides said the changes were made for logistical considerations and to avoid the fog that had been shrouding the hills around Rio during the earlier hours of the day.

Obama has also blended his Latin American visit with the events in the Middle East to advance a single theme. The successful transition of Latin American countries to democracy, he has argued, offers a template for a positive outcome in regions undergoing turmoil now.

"For the United States and Brazil, two nations who have struggled over many generations to perfect our own democracies, the United States and Brazil know that the future of the Arab world will be determined by its people," Obama said in his speech Sunday.

Within that theme has been a call for universal human rights, a message Obama will deliver again on Monday in Chile.

In that, some Chileans see a paradox as they recall the U.S. support for the overthrow of President Salvador Allende in 1973. Protesters on Sunday in Santiago demanded that Obama apologize to the Chilean people for U.S. interventions before and during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. And Obama could face calls for turning over CIA and State Department records from that period to the Chilean judiciary.

After Chile, Obama and his family will complete their Latin American tour in El Salvador.

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Associated Press writer Michael Warren contributed to this report.