Soft power is about to come to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) - America’s military command in the Middle East - in a big way.
By winning friends and influencing people, the idea goes, the United States can defuse potential conflicts before they start and achieve America’s goals without firing a shot.
Soft power has currency in a cash-strapped U.S. military. The commander of SOUTHCOM, America’s military command for Central and South America, has undertaken many such missions. Adm. James Stavridis has sent Navy hospital ships to countries in that area to provide free medical care, train local doctors and build schools.
The new command in Africa - AFRICOM - has announced that such soft-power missions will be its top priority.
But these are relative backwaters. CENTCOM, where the United States is engaged in two wars and is prepared for others, is where soft power will have its largest impact.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, who is best known as the general behind the successful “surge” strategy in Iraq, has just taken over CENTCOM, and he is bringing soft power to bear.
He already has demonstrated that it can work on a limited basis in the midst of a hot war. The surge consisted of more than an additional five brigades worth of forces. It also was soft power in action.
U.S. forces persuaded Sunni tribes who had been at the heart of the insurgency that foreign fighters affiliated with al Qaeda were not good allies, as demonstrated by their imposition of harsh Sharia law and forced marriages to ensure loyalty in areas where they had control.
American dollars and arms, as well as promises of amnesty and integration into the Iraqi military, sealed the deal. This tamped-down violence increased the security sought by the local population, and has allowed reconstruction and development projects to be undertaken so as to “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people.
This strategy is about to be employed in Afghanistan as well.
Gen. Petraeus codified this soft-power approach in the new Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. This will affect how American forces fight in messy, internal conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan for years to come.
But Petraeus has a broader goal: to transform how the United States approaches all conflicts. And he is using his new command to achieve it.
A CENTCOM brain trust soon will begin work on a strategy for the entire area from Egypt through Pakistan. A strategy team will attempt to apply the principles of the counterinsurgency manual to this region as a whole.
The task force will not develop a traditional military strategy, with its focus on offensive and defensive operations. Rather, its mission is to determine the causes of insecurity in the region and provide solutions that integrate the military, diplomatic, and development missions.
Its working groups are organized primarily around the concerns of counterinsurgency: helping nations in the region govern effectively, build their economies, provide security to their people and communicate America’s intentions clearly in order to address terrorism and proliferation issues.
Led by Brigadier Gen. (Select) H.R. McMaster, a Petraeus protege well-schooled in counterinsurgency operations, the task force will produce a whole government approach to the CENTCOM region and shape the way the United States addresses challenges there, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran’s nuclear program and the Arab-Israeli dispute.
While it is clear that Gen. Petraeus is not the secretary of state, this strategic review will set the course of American engagement with this critical region for years to come.
He is supported by the leadership of the Defense Department and President Bush - and respected by President-elect Barack Obama. The task force will report in February, just as the next administration gets its bearings.
The politically savvy general is a man with a plan - and the resources to see it through.
If the next president is patient and trusts Gen. Petraeus’ judgment, the success of the surge can be replicated across the Middle East and Central Asia, and soft-power approaches will permeate American foreign policy for a generation to come.
Gary Schaub Jr. is an assistant professor in the Leadership and Strategy Department of the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, in Montgomery, Ala.