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Pentagon to show softer side to the world

Gates picks an admiral with diplomatic skills to command US troops in Europe.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 2009

SMART POWER: Adm. James Stavridis, picked to head US European Command, is known for combining diplomatic and military tactics.

Miguel Angel Alvarez/Notimex/Newscom



After seven years of war, American foreign policy has become nearly synonymous with the brawny side of its military. But the US armed forces may now be moving to show a different face to the world.

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Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended an admiral better known for humanitarian and diplomatic initiatives than for muscle-flexing to assume a critical command post in Europe.

Adm. James Stavridis is an unusual choice to fill a job usually held by the Army. In his two years overseeing US military operations in South and Latin America, he has built a reputation for running a different kind of command – deploying hospital ships and soccer teams while contending with drug trafficking and corruption.

Stavridis may be able to bring that balance to Europe, where deliberations over Afghanistan over the next few years will be critical to that mission's success.

"It's a terrific appointment," says Carola McGiffert, who chaired a commission on smart power for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "It's a recognition that although we may be the world's strongest power, we still need help from other countries to get things done."

Stavridis will double as head of US European Command as well as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO – a post once held by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. His first task is to work with NATO allies on Afghanistan.

European countries are still reluctant to send more troops to Afganistan. But there's some "wiggle room" in what they are willing to do there, says Constanze Stelzenmüller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, which promotes transatlantic relations. If Stavridis plays it right, she adds, he might be able to get them to loosen some of the restrictions that govern the Afghanistan mission.

"It's a huge opportunity," says Ms. Stelzenmüller. But moving the admiral to Europe has to be more than window dressing, she warns. "Stavridis can't just stick new labels on old policies and expect Europeans to go along. But if he listens and asks for ideas, he can expect a lot of goodwill."

The nomination appears to be part of a softening of the American military approach overseas as the US attempts to reclaim its standing in the world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is sending additional diplomatic officers to Afghanistan, and Obama and Congress have called for a three-fold increase in the amount of nonmilitary aid to Pakistan.