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U.S. Navy aims to flex 'soft power'

Goodwill missions could become the Navy's chief strategy in the war on terror.

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The US Navy is trying to set a new course, embracing a shift in strategy that focuses heavily on administering humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and other forms of so-called soft power to woo allies to help the United States fight global terrorism.

The Navy's new maritime strategy, unveiled this fall and shared by the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, is a shift in tone that reflects a broader change in the Pentagon's approach as it organizes itself for what many military officials refer to as a "generational conflict" against extremism. It's a move away from the go-it-alone stance of the Bush White House and toward a new emphasis on building partnerships abroad and finding common interests.

Critics say that while the Navy's new approach is noble, the sea service should stick to meeting more conventional threats to US security from countries like China and build more ships that can be used to flex America's naval muscle.

While the Navy says it will maintain its ability to use the "hard power" for which it's known, the new focus represents an important change – the first major rewrite of strategy in more than 20 years. It puts greater emphasis on humanitarian aid, disaster relief, "partnering" with foreign navies also working to combat piracy, terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

"We can't do things unilaterally, we recognize that," says Donald Winter, the Navy secretary. "Not all things, not all places."

Secretary Winter invokes Teddy Roosevelt's navy 100 years ago as a metaphor to describe how he sees today's navy. In 1907, Roosevelt sent 16 battleships on a 14-month round-the-world cruise to demonstrate American might and goodwill, and to serve as a deterrent.

Winter says the Navy's rich maritime history makes it well-suited for this kind of mission. And some believe the service is more available for this kind of job, as it has had a secondary role in the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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