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