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Obama, Gates to leave Washington for official visits as Libya crisis deepens

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As war clouds gathered over Libya on Friday, the U.S. commander in chief and his defense secretary were each preparing to leave Washington to visit places far removed from any military operations.

President Obama was due to depart late Friday night for Brazil, the first stop on a five-day tour of Latin America that will also take him to Chile and El Salvador. Meanwhile, Pentagon chief Robert M. Gates was scheduled to fly Saturday to Russia, where he will spend three days in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Both trips were in the works long before the U.N. Security Council voted Thursday evening to authorize “all necessary measures” to intervene militarily in Libya, including airstrikes and missile attacks against the forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gaddafi.

White House and Pentagon officials said the events in Libya — as well as revolutions in other Middle Eastern countries, not to mention the nuclear crisis in Japan — didn’t warrant canceling the trips.

“It’s imperative that the United States not disengage from these regions,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters Wednesday. “When we disengage, our ability to advance partnerships that serve our interest suffers.”

Gates will meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in Moscow on Tuesday but first will spend two days in St. Petersburg, where he will give a speech to junior Russian officers and tour cultural sites, including the Hermitage museum.

“There is no consideration being given to delaying this trip,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. “He obviously flies in the aircraft he flies in, and with the staff he has, so that he can carry out his responsibilities no matter where he is in the world. So just because we’re traveling doesn’t mean he won’t be able to attend to whatever other issues are pressing at the time.”

The Obama administration has largely left it to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve as its public face on Libya, particularly on the issue of the diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations.

Gates has been especially skeptical of military intervention, questioning whether it would be smart for the United States to be seen as invading another Muslim country, given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has been notably silent on the topic in recent days. Pentagon officials said he had no plans to say anything Friday about the Security Council vote. His last public comments about Libya came on Saturday, after a brief visit to Bahrain.

“If we are directed to impose a no-fly zone, we have the resources to do it,” he told reporters traveling with him at the time. “This is not a question of whether we or our allies can do this. We can do it. The question is whether it’s a wise thing to do.”

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