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A US military leader stresses ideas over firepower

The head of US Southern Command uses a soft approach to combat anti-American fervor.

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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.

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