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.
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."
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.
"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."