U.S. Navy aims to flex 'soft power'

Goodwill missions could become the Navy's chief strategy in the war on terror.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The US Navy is trying to set a new course, embracing a shift in strategy that focuses heavily on administering humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and other forms of so-called soft power to woo allies to help the United States fight global terrorism.

The Navy's new maritime strategy, unveiled this fall and shared by the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, is a shift in tone that reflects a broader change in the Pentagon's approach as it organizes itself for what many military officials refer to as a "generational conflict" against extremism. It's a move away from the go-it-alone stance of the Bush White House and toward a new emphasis on building partnerships abroad and finding common interests.

Critics say that while the Navy's new approach is noble, the sea service should stick to meeting more conventional threats to US security from countries like China and build more ships that can be used to flex America's naval muscle.

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While the Navy says it will maintain its ability to use the "hard power" for which it's known, the new focus represents an important change – the first major rewrite of strategy in more than 20 years. It puts greater emphasis on humanitarian aid, disaster relief, "partnering" with foreign navies also working to combat piracy, terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

"We can't do things unilaterally, we recognize that," says Donald Winter, the Navy secretary. "Not all things, not all places."

Secretary Winter invokes Teddy Roosevelt's navy 100 years ago as a metaphor to describe how he sees today's navy. In 1907, Roosevelt sent 16 battleships on a 14-month round-the-world cruise to demonstrate American might and goodwill, and to serve as a deterrent.

Winter says the Navy's rich maritime history makes it well-suited for this kind of mission. And some believe the service is more available for this kind of job, as it has had a secondary role in the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It really does get to the idea of being able to use the broad spectrum of capabilities that the fleet provides," he says in a recent interview. "The fleet is more than just combat capability. The fleet has really always had an almost diplomatic capability."

Last year, for example, the aircraft carrier George Washington deployed to the Caribbean Sea for several weeks of military-to-military training and other community-relations work, according to officials at US Southern Command in Miami. This summer, the hospital ship Comfort deployed around South America on a four-month humanitarian mission in which it visited 12 ports and helped nearly 100,000 people.

More recently, Navy ships have helped fight piracy off the coast of Somalia and provided disaster relief in Bangladesh after a tropical cyclone hit last month.

Navy officials say the strategy allows the sea service to focus much more on what it's been doing for years anyway.

"Historically, we've been doing that but it's [been] more of a pick-up game," says one Navy official.

Such nonmilitary approaches are fundamental to addressing the nation's security problems, says Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In what many in and outside the Pentagon believe was a seminal speech at Kansas State University last month, Secretary Gates argued for dramatically more funding for nondefense agencies such as the State Department and the US Agency for International Development.

"[B]ased on my experience serving seven presidents as a former director of CIA and now as Secretary of Defense, I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use 'soft' power and for better integrating it with 'hard' power," Gates said.

Some members of Congress aren't so sure the new strategy has the right focus, and many believe the service needs to build more ships. Although it plans to have as many as 313 ships in the coming years, many would like to see it grow more.

On Capitol Hill earlier this month, Republicans and Democrats alike spoke out against the Navy's plan, saying it failed to lay the groundwork for building more ships and didn't take into account emerging naval threats like those posed by a country like China.

Republican presidential contender Duncan Hunter lamented that the new strategy didn't seek more funding to build new ships during a congressional hearing on Dec. 13. The California congressman noted that China is building commercial ships at a much faster rate than the US.

"If that shipbuilding capability, which is presently focused on commercial construction, is translated or turned into warship construction, the Chinese government has the ability to quickly outstrip the construction of American ships and the fielding of a large Navy," Representative Hunter said.

"The best way to deter adversaries and to dissuade potential competitors is to have the baddest, most operationally capable and flexible, and most lethal military possible," says Robert Work, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.

After nearly five years of war in Iraq, Bush's go-it-alone strategy has angered many inside the Pentagon who believe the only way forward is to rebuild the trust and confidence of allies so they can be counted on if and when needed.

"There are a lot of Americans who are inside the US government who have the knowledge and have a pretty good and clear sense of what needs to happen," says Rick Barton, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

But Mr. Barton, who had not been briefed on the Navy's new strategy, says such approaches are mere "tokenism" if they aren't backed up with the resources they need to be effective.

"Until you see the incentives, careers, and capital expenditures lining up, all you have is more rhetoric than fact," Barton says.

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