A US military leader stresses ideas over firepower
The head of US Southern Command uses a soft approach to combat anti-American fervor.
James Stavridis had a decision to make: fire a missile at an Iranian aircraft flying ever closer to his Aegis cruiser in the Arabian Gulf, or wait to see what the pilot would do. The young lieutenant commander, the tactical action officer on board, held both his fire and his breath. When the plane peeled off of its own accord, he sighed in relief and knew he'd made the right choice.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That was more than 20 years ago, during the "tanker war" between Iran and Iraq. But the experience has stayed with Mr. Stavridis, now a four-star admiral in charge of US Southern Command, as a reminder that the conventional militaristic approach isn't always the best course.
"The incident comes back to me at times because it tells you that, in the world we live in, it's good to hold back on the key sometimes," says Stavridis, during a recent interview here.
At a time when a strain of "anti-yanquism" is on the rise in parts of Latin America, Stavridis is refashioning the Pentagon's combatant command for that region in a way he hopes will halt that trend. His aim is to influence countries using ideas instead of military might, demonstrating a US commitment to fixing problems there versus doing it by force.
That's why, under his command, the Navy hospital ship Comfort is making about a dozen port stops in the region and seeing as many as 85,000 patients. It's why another flotilla of ships is conducting military-to-military training with several Latin American countries, a kind of gunboat diplomacy in reverse, in which US forces are there to teach and share rather than to demonstrate their lethal force. It's why Stavridis is reaching out to friends – and to foes, including senior members of Hugo Chávez's government in Venezuela – to help stem the flow of illegal drugs.
Endemic poverty, inequality, and corruption are not lost on Stavridis, who in eight months at the helm of Southern Command has enlisted personnel from other agencies to play a role in this revamped US engagement with Latin America.
"We can't solve the problems down here with tanks and ships and high-priced aircraft," he says. "But we can solve problems here by getting shoulder to shoulder with the Department of State, Department of Justice, the Department of Treasury, bringing Defense Department assets to bear, and bringing in interagency [resources]."
Use of 'smart power'
This isn't the first time a military commander has thought to walk a bit more softly. But over the past several years, taking a so-called smart power approach to engage other nations was virtually banned from the Pentagon's vernacular.
The concept reemerged under then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, a four-year study of military capabilities and strategies. Now it's starting to take root.
"Even under Rumsfeld, civilian leadership came around to this idea of building partner capacity as the long pole in the tent," says analyst Michele Flournoy, cofounder of a new Washington think tank, The Center for a New American Security. "The instincts of Southern Command and others to try to engage, preconflict, to kind of shape the conflict, to build relationships, not only on the military side but using other instruments of national power, is a very good instinct."
"That," she adds, "is how we're going to gradually recover our standing in the region."