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Obama juggles Libya war, Brazil trade

The president has the resources and ability to simultaneously manage a war and open up markets for U.S. business, aides say.

March 20, 2011|By Peter Nicholas

Reporting from Rio de Janeiro — When they planned President Obama's first foray to South America, White House aides envisioned a trip that wouldn't pose any special diplomatic challenges. They built in plenty of sightseeing, and the president brought along not only his wife and two daughters, but also his mother-in-law and a close family friend.

Now the script is getting a frantic rewrite. Even as Obama kicks soccer balls with Brazilian children and delivers speeches on exports, the White House is scrambling to demonstrate he's on top of the military campaign in Libya.

Aides are giving minute-by-minute accounts of Obama's phone calls with national security advisors and foreign leaders. They're canceling news conferences on trade and swapping in briefings on cruise missile attacks.

Juggling a new war and a five-day trade mission has made for some awkward moments.

Right before announcing the attacks on Libya, Obama gave a speech to a group of business leaders in the same convention center. He warmed up the room with jokes about the misfortunes of U.S. soccer and the pleasures of Brazilian culture.

"My only regret is that we missed the party by coming a few weeks after Carnaval," he said.

But others are questioning whether he should have come at all. The likelihood of military action against Libya mounted in the hours before Air Force One departed Friday night.

"We've got troops overseas and nuclear meltdown in Japan. Potentially, there's some dissonance to his paying attention to the Southern Hemisphere when everything's happening everywhere else," said Byron Allen, a Republican strategist.

White House aides said they have no plans to call off the five-day, three-country tour.

Asked whether Obama might come home early to run the war from Washington, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters that "at every juncture where it was necessary for the president to engage in a discussion with his national security team … we've carved out that time."

Obama arrived in Rio on Saturday night after a full day of meetings with officials and business executives in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia. He spent part of Sunday morning at a community center watching drums and martial arts performances. Later he and daughter Malia kicked soccer balls with some neighborhood children, who shouted, "Welcome, Obama!"

The president delivered a speech in the afternoon touting the commonalties between the two countries — chiefly a mutual commitment to democracy.

At no point in the address did he mention the fighting in Libya, though the war was inescapable. CNN cut away from the president's speech with a breaking news alert: "Tripoli under attack right now."

The trip provides the most severe test yet of a dictum oft-repeated by White House aides — that Obama can "walk and chew gum at the same time." With secure communications and a national security team traveling by his side, Obama can simultaneously manage the war and open up markets for U.S. business, aides said.

Much rides on a good relationship with Brazil. The country will host the 2016 Olympics, and U.S. businesses want a piece of the $200 billion worth of construction projects needed to prepare for the Games.

While meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Obama plugged the F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighters made by Boeing. Brazil is weighing offers from the U.S. and other nations competing to sell fighter jets.

Global sensitivities might even necessitate a low-key approach when it comes to Libya, some experts on the presidency said. Having launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 10 years, the U.S. does not want to be seen as masterminding yet another conflict.

"He does not want to overplay this war the way in which the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been overplayed," said Allan Lichtman, an American University professor who has written on the presidency. "He is better off keeping American involvement limited and low-key."

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.

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