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In the heart of his mission to Latin America, President Barack Obama tried to get the world to see what he saw.
“Latin America is at peace,” he said in Chile.
The world, however, has been busy. His speech was not the story. War always tends to trump peace.
In his first extended trip to Latin America, Obama leaves Wednesday on a fitting note — dealing with the crisis in Libya, the first war launched on his watch.
His last scheduled activity here will be a strategy call on Libya with his national security team, not the long-planned tour of Mayan ruins in this small, coastal Central American country. The president, Mauricio Funes, openly wished for Obama to stay longer to enjoy the beaches. The reality is that Obama is leaving town a few hours earlier than scheduled.
The forces pulling him away from his intended message, both abroad and at home, seem as great as at any time in his presidency.
An entire swath of the Middle East and North Africa is in upheaval. And while the rapid transformations in Tunisia and Egypt emerged in relative peace, the White House is trying to help prevent the worst in volatile Yemen and Bahrain. A tsunami, earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan consumed attention just as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi tried to crush a rebellion.
It doesn’t make for a great time to push his education agenda, as Obama has been trying to do all month back home.
And then came this trip. In the moment, it has two competing legacies.
The one seen by him and leaders in this vast part of the world is a visit that will pay off for years. A president’s most valuable commodity is considered to be his time, and even when Obama was on the brink of war, he still spent more than four days in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. It was a commitment not just to those democracies but to an emerging region that hundreds of millions call home.
“A trip like this is extraordinarily important to advance our relationships in the Americas,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said. “The benefits of good relations with these nations — in terms of economic growth, energy security and democracy promotion — will yield substantial benefits for the United States over time.”
Then there is the other legacy, the sense that Obama has been operating in another world.
The president has been heavily engaged in directing his war council and getting updates about the U.S.-led effort to pound Gadhafi’s air defenses into history. Yet the optics, and some speeches, have felt out of place at times.
As war began — at about the same time as the trip — perhaps the most memorable images of Obama were of him kicking a soccer ball with eager children in Rio de Janeiro or standing in the moonlit mist with his family under the outstretched arms of the city’s world-famous statue of Jesus.
He promoted energy cooperation and student exchange programs, but American reporters quizzed him for clarity on his war policy.
“I know our headlines are often dominated by events in other parts of the world,” Obama said in his speech in Chile, trying to draw attention back to his central point. “But let’s never forget: Every day, the future is being forged by the countries and peoples of Latin America.”
At home, Obama and his team have made a concerted effort to stay on message — avoiding temptation to jump into the day’s news or react to the latest provocation from a critic unless doing so fit into the White House’s overarching message. Obama showed the same approach abroad. He addressed Libya only to announce he had authorized U.S. military forces to act, and when the topic came up at two news conferences. But he stuck with all the official welcomes, elaborate dinners and topics he came here to promote.
It played well and made headlines at every stop. An editorial in one of Brazil’s largest newspapers said the trip had “much more than symbolic importance” and “may open a new stage of political understanding and an economic partnership beneficial for both sides.”
Back home, stories about the trip did not make the front pages. It was all Libya.
And there were moments when the trip’s two themes could not help but collide. On Monday night in Chile, Obama learned that a U.S. fighter jet on a strike mission against a government missile site in eastern Libya had crashed. Obama, through his national security adviser and chief of staff, got updates even during dinner with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.
Both crewmen had ejected safely, but the crash served as a reminder that the costs of any military offensive are real.
“The president was fully capable of communicating securely with his senior national security team and military commanders on Libya, as well as foreign leaders, while also leading our diplomacy here in the Americas,” Rhodes said. “It is a fact of the presidency that you will have to deal with multiple issues at once.”
Some issues just get more attention than others.
Ben Feller has covered the Bush and Obama presidencies for The Associated Press.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press