Obama's Brazil trip overshadowed by Libya

President Barack Obama is briefed on the situation in Libya during a secure conference call with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, right, Chief of Staff Bill Daley, left, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham, and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, March 20, 2011.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Obama is briefed on the situation in Libya during a secure conference call in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 20, 2011.
White House Photo by Pete Souza

This morning in Rio de Janeiro, President Obama along with his family toured the Ciudad de Jesus favela and kicked a soccer ball with a local boy. But his trip to South America has been more than just sightseeing and diplomacy.

Throughout his day in Brasilia yesterday and now in Rio de Janeiro, the president has led a two track agenda -- one, the task at hand of his push to get American goods into the booming Brazilian economy, and the other, beginning military action across the Atlantic in Libya.

Speaking to the people of Rio today, Mr. Obama made only a passing mention of the conflict, "We've seen the people of Libya take a courageous stand against a regime determined to brutalize its own citizens."

But his lack of words today doesn't mean Libya hasn't been front and center in his day. Hours before he left his hotel for his tour and speech here, he was briefed on the latest on the military operations in Libya by his top national security aides, including Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

The tone of his five-day trip to South America so far has been a balance of his two priorities.

After a day of meetings Saturday with Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, that included sharing a toast at a luncheon for business leaders, the president made a powerful statement, announcing America's involvement in Libya.

"Today I authorized the Armed Forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians. That action has now begun," he said.


A Brazilian newspaper, O Globo, has a stark headline today over a photo of the two leaders clinking glasses, playing up the juxtaposition of the president's disparate goals (see at left).

It says: "No Brasil, Obama ordena ataque a Libia.."

It means: "In Brazil, Obama orders attack on Libya."

Libya has overshadowed the president's entire journey to Brazil. As the White Press Corps was getting settled in Brasilia on Friday, even before he took off, the president was preparing for action in Libya. He held a meeting in the Oval Office with top aides to finalize the military plans in Libya, just a day after the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize a ceasefire and no-fly-zone.

According to the White House, the president had another briefing Saturday morning aboard Air Force One before he landed in Brazil.

Once in his hotel, he had yet another briefing, and a phone call, placed by the president to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, one of the key allies in the Libyan response.

The president then began the usual pomp and circumstance of his visit, including an elaborate arrival ceremony and a bilateral meeting with President Rousseff. The two leaders were scheduled to make remarks around 11 am. The press were kept waiting for hours, and eventually, well after noon, the leaders spoke. The president made a brief mention of Libya and moved on to the lunch.

Later the press was told that the delay was due to another briefing with top military leaders and a phone call with Secretary Clinton who had concluded a meeting with world leaders in Paris on how to proceed with military action in Libya.

So even overseas, and with an economic agenda in front of him, the president has been fully briefed on the situation in Libya and has woven urgent phone calls and briefings into days packed with diplomatic niceties and sightseeing. Proving that even thousands of miles from the White House, the president is never far from the juggling act that his job requires.

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    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.