The Pen­tagon’s hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sions change hearts and minds in Latin Amer­i­can lo­cales

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY DAVID AXE

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua | From the time he was 4 years old, Ches La­collo, 11, suf­fered from an ab­nor­mal growth on the in­side of his right eye­lid. The mass ob­structed his vi­sion, made read­ing im­pos­si­ble and so de­formed his ap­pear­ance that, he said, his friends and fam­ily avoided looking di­rectly at him.

Re­mov­ing the growth re­quired only a fairly sim­ple surgery. But in Puerto Cabezas, on Nicaragua’s im­pov­er­ished east­ern coast, there are few doc­tors and only ba­sic health fa­cil­i­ties. Most surg­eries re­quire that the pa­tients fly hun­dreds of miles across the coun­try to the cap­i­tal of Managua. But the $100 for the twice-daily flights out of Puerto Cabezas’ sole airstrip is more than most lo­cal res­i­dents can af­ford.

So for seven years, Ches suf­fered and hoped for a mir­a­cle.

That mir­a­cle ar­rived in per­haps the strangest pos­si­ble form. On Aug. 11, the hulk­ing gray shape of the USS Kearsarge, an 840-foot U.S. Navy am­phibi­ous as­sault ship, ap­peared in the ocean haze a few miles from Puerto Cabezas’ sun­scorched, sea­weed-strewn beaches. Four days later, Ches found him­self on a bed in Kearsarge’s air-condi- tioned med­i­cal ward, be­ing prepped for a quick surgery to re­move the growth at no cost to his fam­ily.

“Even though it’s a sim­ple surgery, it will have a big im­pact on this child’s life,” said Cmdr. Brian Alexan­der, an op­tometrist nor­mally as­signed to the Portsmouth Naval Hospi­tal in Vir­ginia.

Mere hours later, Lt. Brian Bar­ber be­gan un­wrap­ping the ban­dages from Ches’ head to give him his first view of the world through “new” eyes.

Ches had many peo­ple to thank, but none more than Adm. James Stavridis, the charis­matic boss of U.S. South­ern Com­mand, based a thou­sand miles away in Mi­ami.

De­spite the dis­tance, Adm. Stavridis was a con­stant pres­ence in Kearsarge’s gray cor­ri­dors, in her chilly op­er­at­ing rooms and in Puerto Cabezas’ swel­ter­ing streets, which for two weeks in Au­gust hosted some 300 med­i­cal spe­cial­ists from the am­phibi­ous ship.

For Adm. Stavridis, a prom­i­nent for­mer de­stroyer cap­tain and the au­thor of four books, is one of the mas­ter­minds of a rad­i­cal, but largely un­her­alded, new strat­egy for pro­tect­ing Amer­i­can in­ter­ests without ever fir­ing a shot.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan gob­bling up most U.S.

Soft power

mil­i­tary re­sources and mo­nop­o­liz­ing the at­ten­tion of the na­tion’s top pol­icy-mak­ers, Adm. Stavridis and like-minded se­nior of­fi­cers, with the bless­ing of Sec­re­tary of De­fense Robert M. Gates, are us­ing leftover peo­ple and weapon sys­tems, plus the free­dom that comes from be­ing mostly ig­nored by the pub­lic, to in­vade some of the world’s most des­per­ate and volatile coun­tries with free med­i­cal care and ed­u­ca­tion and eco­nomic as­sis­tance.

In mil­i­tary speak, it’s called “soft power,” and it’s all the rage in the Pen­tagon’s con­crete halls. The ba­sic the­ory is sim­ple: It’s eas­ier and in the long run cheaper to win over peo­ple with friend­ship and gifts than it is to fight them into sub­mis­sion when a cri­sis flares.

At the cost of a few thou­sand dol­lars plus a cou­ple hours of la­bor, some­one like Ches be­comes a life­long ally of the United States, and so too his friends and fam­ily. Mul­ti­ply that by a hun­dred thou­sand, and you’ve “con­quered” a coun­try without any­one dy­ing — and the al­le­giances, pre­sum­ably, are stronger than they’d ever be from a de­feated en­emy.

This is a the­ory un­der­scored by the on­go­ing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which have proved the dif­fi­culty of winning hearts and minds in the midst of daily fight­ing us­ing heavy weapons sys­tems that of­ten claim the lives of in­no­cent by­standers.

“We can’t solve the prob­lems down here [in Latin Amer­ica] with tanks and ships and high-priced air­craft,” Adm. Stavridis said last year.

Maybe so, but “soft power” is not without its com­pli­ca­tions, flaws and de­trac­tors. Big multi­bil­lion­dol­lar Navy am­phibi­ous ships — “ga­tors,” they’re called — fig­ure heav­ily in the strat­egy. They’re all es­sen­tially bor­rowed from the U.S. Marines who usu­ally ride in them but are now locked in land bat­tles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some­day, per­haps soon, the Marines will want their boats back, and in­no­va­tive com­man­ders like Adm. Stavridis will have to come up with re­place­ments amid de­fense bud­gets that are pro­jected to shrink in com­ing years.

On the diplo­matic front, U.S. mil­i­tary hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sions face huge re­sis­tance from world leaders who don’t trust the Pen­tagon’s mo­tives. In­deed, even as Kearsarge’s hu­man­i­tar­i­ans helped thou­sands of poor and sick in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaraguan Pres­i­dent Daniel Ortega all but ac­cused the ves­sel of har­bor­ing spies — this de­spite Mr. Ortega ear­lier hav­ing ap­proved Kearsage’s visit.

Even if re­sources and hos­tile for­eign leaders weren’t a fac­tor, soft power still would face huge ob­sta­cles. Re­solv­ing con­flicts with good deeds rep­re­sents a new way of think­ing and act­ing for a mil­i­tary that nor­mally trains and equips for ma­jor wars. Prob­lems, and so­lu­tions, that would be ob­vi­ous to a long­time civil­ian aid worker might come as big sur­prises to a Navy sailor. Kearsarge’s crew learned this the hard way in Nicaragua.

Adm. Stavridis’ “soft power” strat­egy might very well rep­re­sent the way of the fu­ture for U.S. na­tional strat­egy. But it’s got a lot of kinks to work out in the mean­time.

Call­ing all Span­ish speak­ers

Adm. Stavridis’ soft-power strat­egy has been pick­ing up steam in Latin Amer­ica ever since he as­sumed com­mand in 2006.

Kearsarge’s visit to Nicaragua rep­re­sented just the first stop on an on­go­ing, four-month, six-coun­try cruise also hail­ing at Panama, Colom­bia, Do­mini­can Repub­lic, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana. The cruise is ac­tu­ally the sec­ond phase of an op­er­a­tion code-named Con­tin­u­ing Prom­ise.

Phase One, head­lined by Kearsarge’s sis­ter ship Boxer, tar­geted Latin Amer­ica’s Pa­cific


The USS Kearsarge, an 840-foot U.S. Navy am­phibi­ous as­sault ship, is one of roughly three dozen such ships in the U.S. Navy. It has been used for hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sions in Latin Amer­ica.

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