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A US military leader stresses ideas over firepower

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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."

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