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A US military leader stresses ideas over firepower

The head of US Southern Command uses a soft approach to combat anti-American fervor.

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At the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another think tank in Washington, a "commission on smart power" is studying the approach. Many agencies outside the Defense Department have been starved for resources over the years, notes Rick Barton, a CSIS analyst who is on the commission. It will take some time to shift the mind-set – and the money – to what many believe is the more effective approach to addressing global problems, he says. He likens it to changing the course of a big ship.

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"People are very much aware of needing a wiser mix, and Washington has picked that up," he says. "It's quite a supertanker."

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at center stage, Southern Command is in many ways the "forgotten command." Though its responsibilities include overseeing Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where about 400 terrorism suspects are held, the command's focus has been on lower-profile missions like fighting drug smuggling and dispensing humanitarian aid in places like Honduras.

Why Latin America matters to US

But there are new reasons to pay attention there, say military and civilian analysts.

Venezuela's President Chávez continues his anti-US rant, and leaders in Ecuador and Nicaragua aren't friendly. Cuba's future remains an open question. Views of the US have become less favorable in Latin America over the past five years, according to a report released June 27 by The Pew Global Attitudes Project in Washington.

US standing in places like Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia has declined sharply since 2002, according to the report, even if a majority of the publics in those countries still view the US favorably. But people in Brazil and Bolivia, for example, have largely negative opinions of the US, whereas five years ago, majorities in both nations felt favorable toward the US government and its leaders. In Argentina, the US has an unfavorability rating of 72 percent, the report found.

Much of Latin America's problems are steeped in the fact that so many there are poor: Forty percent of people in the region live on less than $2 per day, and 20 percent live on less than $1 per day, according to officials. The contrast between that kind of poverty and America's wealth, combined with resentment about the US role in Iraq, has led many in the region to blame the US for Latin America's problems, Stavridis says.

In recent years, Muslim extremism has emerged as a small but worrisome threat to regional and US security in the so-called triborder area of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. More recently, intelligence analysts at Southern Command have cited extremist activity along the Caribbean coastline region.

Stavridis's approach may be mirrored an ocean away in Africa, where the Defense Department is planning for a new geographic combatant command focused solely on Africa. The command, dubbed "Africom," will not resemble other combatant commands such as Central Command or European Command in that it will have a stronger "interagency" focus, employing personnel from other agencies. There has even been talk that its deputy commanding officer could be a non-Defense Department civilian.

The smart power approach is more than just one admiral leading a small command with a new set of ideas, says Loren Thompson, an analyst who heads The Lexington Institute, another think tank in the Washington area. There is new recognition that an approach like Stavridis's can work elsewhere, including European Command, Pacific Command, and even, ultimately, Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There is a sea change in the Bush administration," he says, "from ideologues who wanted to launch global crusades to more restrained and humble policymakers who try to work with the rest of the world on its own terms."