President Obama Cutting Short His South America Trip – by Two Hours

Susan Jones | March 23, 2011 | 5:51am EDT
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President Obama talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron about the situation in Libya, making the call from Air Force One on the flight from Santiago, Chile to San Salvador, El Salvador, on March 22, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

( – As his trip to Latin America winds up in El Salvador Wednesday, President Obama is still taking questions about why the U.S. launched air attacks on Libya, especially when the president was traveling on foreign soil.

On Tuesday, the White House announced that Obama would cut short his trip by two hours – skipping a planned trip to the Mayan ruins so he can focus on Libya.

According to the Associated Press, White House aides “have taken pains to portray Obama as fully engaged in the deployment of missiles and warplanes in North Africa even as he devoted his public time to bridge-building with Latin American leaders.”

On Tuesday, Obama – pressed again on why he’d initiate hostilities with Libya while traveling abroad – said Americans should keep in mind “that when it comes to enforcing a no-fly zone, we were working on very short time frames. After consultation with our allies, we decided to move forward.”

Obama’s state visit to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador coincided with his daughters’ spring break from school, and his family accompanied him on the trip.

As for why the U.S. military intervention in Libya is in America’s national interest, Obama stressed humanitarian aspects in his remarks Tuesday in El Salvador:

“The American people and the United States States have an interest, first of all, in making sure that – ah -- where a brutal dictator is threatening his people and saying he will show no mercy and go door to door hunting people down, and we have the capacity under international sanction to do something about that – I think it’s in America’s national interest to do something about it.

“That doesn’t mean that we can solve every problem in the world,” the president added.

He noted that U.S. intervention in Libya is in America’s national interest “because nobody has a bigger stake in making sure that there are basic rules of the road that are observed, that there is some semblance of order and justice -- particularly in a volatile region that's going through great changes like the Middle East -- than does the United States of America.”

Obama raised the specter of “a million Libyans” – refugees -- fleeing to other Middle Eastern countries, making their borders less secure and producing “spillover effects” in the entire region.

“So not only do we have a humanitarian interest, but we also have a very practical interest in making sure that the changes that are sweeping through that region are occurring in a peaceful nonviolent fashion,” Obama said. “And when we can have some impact on that with a relatively modest contribution as part of a broader international effort, then I absolutely believe that the costs are outweighed by the benefits, and that is what drove my decision.”

The president said he was “extraordinarily relieved” that two American airmen, whose fighter jet crashed in Libya, are back in American hands. Libyan rebels assisted one of the airmen, but President Obama on Tuesday said he had anticipated such a situation: “I specifically had discussions with Admiral Mullen and other of our military personnel to make sure that we had the kind of standard recovery efforts in place, because there are risks involved,” Obama told reporters.

The president said he has “absolutely no doubt” that the U.S. will be able to transfer control of the Libyan mission to an international coalition. He said he expects “clarity” on that situation “over the next few days.”   

“I said at the outset that this was going to be a matter of days and not weeks,” Obama said of the U.S. military action in Libya. “And there’s nothing based on how we've been able to execute over the last several days that changes that assessment.

Obama said he wants Americans to know that the U.S. military action in Libya has already saved lives, particularly in the rebel-held town of Benghazi.

He also discussed the costs of the “war” in Libya. Because the mission is “limited in time, scope, with a well-defined mission, we're confident that this is something that we can budget as part of our overall operations,” he told reporters.

Asked about his exit strategy for U.S. military involvement if Qaddafi remains in power, President Obama said it’s correct to believe that if Qaddafi remains in power – “unless he changes his approach and provides the Libyan people an opportunity to express themselves freely and there are significant reforms in the Libyan government, unless he is willing to step down -- there are still going to be potential threats towards the Libyan people.

“And we will continue to support the efforts to protect the Libyan people, but we will not be in the lead,” he said. The president again mentioned the transition of the mission to “other coalition partners” in a short period of time.

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