War-weary US awakens to 'soft power'

Updated: 2007-12-14 08:02

WASHINGTON -- After six hard years of war, the United States is awakening to the idea that "soft power" is a better way to regain influence and clout in a world bubbling with instability.

A US Army medic monitors the breathing of a wounded soldier at Ibn Sina Hospital in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007. [Agencies]

And nowhere is the change in thinking more advanced than in the US military, which is pushing for greater diplomacy, economic aid, civic action and civilian capabilities to prevent new wars and win the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates caught the spirit in a much praised speech at Kansas State University last month, calling for a dramatic increase in spending on civilian instruments of power.

Such an appeal would have been unthinkable not long ago, as Gates himself acknowledged, saying it was a "man bites dog" story.

"I think having stubbed our toe badly on Iraq, people are realizing that we weren't doing that well, and it's time for a change," said Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and former senior Pentagon official.

Nye popularized the term "soft power" in books and essays which argue that a key source of US clout is its ability to attract friends and allies by investing in the international good.

"Since 9/11, the United States has been exporting fear and anger rather than the more traditional values of hope and optimism," a report by a commission Nye co-chaired with Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, warned last month. As a result, it said, "Suspicions of American power have run deep."

The United States needs to pursue a positive vision that goes beyond the war on terrorism, it said.

The response of the Bush administration has been "a mixed bag," Nye said.

"But I do think that the view that we have not had smart power in terms of combining the various instruments we have, that we have underinvested in soft power, is represented in the Gates' remarks," he said.

Gates pointed to the huge disparity between the Pentagon's half trillion dollar budget and the State Department's 37 billion dollars.

Its 6,600 diplomats amount to the crew of a single US aircraft carrier, he said.

The US Agency for International Development has been slashed from 15,000 to 3,000 people, and the US Information Agency was dismantled, he said.

Underfunded and undermanned, US civilian agencies have not kept up with the demand for experts in war zones, leading to bitter complaints from US military officers that they have been left holding the bag.

General James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, recalled recently that after the march on Baghdad in 2003, his marines were sent to stabilize southern Iraq.

"We were told to expect local governance teams and governance support teams which would help us with those functions and many, many more," he said. "Those teams did not arrive."

Marines have to be prepared to perform those tasks in future conflicts, he said.

But the right answer is to fund agencies "that we know are going to be players with this soft power (so) that they could develop sort of an expeditionary mentality and people who are anxious to get overseas and get their hands dirty," Conway said.

The State Department is seeking funding for a deployable corps of civilian experts.

But it is the military that has taken the lead in thinking about ways to harness civilian expertise to create security, raising fears in some quarters of a more militarized foreign policy.

The model is a new Africa Command that the Pentagon is establishing to help strengthen security in a troubled continent.

It is supposed to have a senior State Department official as its deputy and components from other civilian agencies.

"The risk is that it may end up being overly military and not enough of the others in part because of money and bodies. State for example is very worried about it for that reason," said Robert Hunter, a former US ambassador to NATO.

The military wants civilian agencies to do more to prevent wars, but is not waiting for them to get their act together, analysts say.

Instead, it has stepped up thinking and planning for what it calls "phase zero," military jargon for conflict prevention.

"I think they've come to the conclusion that insurgencies are really hard to fight. And so it would be better if they could not have the conflict in the first place," said Robert Perito, an expert at the US Institute of Peace.

"In conflict prevention, of course, there is very little military component to that. It's mostly all political and economic. That's the other thing that is going on," he said.

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