Obama's defense strategy doesn't suggest more troops in Latin America

Don’t expect the Pentagon to grow its troop strength or expand its activities in Latin America under the National Defense Strategy unveiled Thursday by President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. The much anticipated “Priorities for 21st Century Defense” makes a single reference to the region, in the same context as Africa.

The focus, it says, will be making the U.S. “a security partner of choice” with those nations that share a “common vision of freedom, stability, and prosperity.”

And Panetta cautioned against visions of expansion.

“In Latin America, Africa, elsewhere in the world, we will use innovative methods to sustain U.S. presence, maintaining key military-to-military relations and pursuing new security partnerships as needed,” he said. “Wherever possible, we will develop low-cost and small-footprint approaches to achieving our security objectives, emphasizing rotational deployments, emphasizing exercises, military exercises with these nations and doing other innovative approaches to maintain a presence throughout the rest of the world.”

That’s already pretty much the approach of Southern Command, the Defense Department outpost in Miami responsible for U.S. military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean — which has few troops posted permanently in the region aside from at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay.

Southcom mostly uses revolving troops and training exercises to keep in contact and friendly relations with regional militaries, and has dispatched supplies and troops regional hurricanes and during potentially destabilizing humanitarian disasters, such as after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

The new military strategy focuses on Asia, the Middle East and Europe and makes no specific reference to any single nation in Latin America or the Caribbean. Nor does it mention Southcom. But it says the Pentagon is still committed to conducting emergency evacuations of American citizens abroad in humanitarian disasters.

“For the moment, the Pentagon doesn’t foresee the Western Hemisphere as becoming a theater for its operations or a place where it’s going to put its increasingly dwindling resources,” says Ray Walser, a former U.S. diplomat and senior policy analyst specializing in Latin America at the Heritage Foundation.

The new strategy doesn’t suggest a major change in Southcom’s approach, he added. “Will they get any additional assets? Doesn’t seem particularly likely.”

In comments to reporters, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense, Michele Flourney, said the United States military is “not going to abandon” small-scale relationships in regions like Latin America. But she acknowledged, “the truth is in the last 10 years we have been so focused in Iraq and Afghanistan there hasn’t been a lot of forces available in some of these other areas to be available for engagement.”

At Southcom, the public affairs officer, Army Col. Scott Malcom said no final budget decisions had been made, and put in a pitch for the regional headquarters to keep doing what it’s been doing.

“Tremendous effort has been made in the last several years to improve the effectiveness of whole-of-government strategies which include diplomatic, development and law enforcement instruments among others. Engagement using all of these tools smartly will remain important to an effective and cost-effective U.S. national security strategy,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon.“The steadfast partnerships Southcom enjoys with our partner nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean Basin and our well-established capacity to operate in a manner consistent with these strategic principles will serve our region well in the future as we work together to find regional solutions to regional problems.”

The colonel said he expected the United States to continue providing aid to Colombia, the biggest recipient of military training support through a combined State and Defense Department program.

“But we cannot predict if there will be cuts,” he said. “Final budget decisions will be made in the future.”The strategy also does not indicate whether Southcom will have to cut its 1,200 or so government employees working out of the headquarters with a $427.2 millon budget for operations, maintenance and counternarcotics activities, said Malcom.

Nor does it mention operations in Haiti or reducing the U.S. forces at Guantánamo or innovating there. Southcom has oversight of the budget for the detention center at the base in Cuba where 1,850 Pentagon forces and employees staff the prison compounds that hold 171 captives at a cost of $800,000 per captive a year at Guantánamo, by Obama administration reckoning, or 30 times the cost of keeping a captive on U.S. soil.

Although a presidential commission over the weekend recommended that Haiti President Michel Martelly restore the army, which was disbanded in 1995 because of its history of abuse, Malcom said the Southcom focus is preparing hemisphere’s poorest nation “for disaster readiness and response.”

He had no comment on the idea of setting up an army.

“The U.S. and the rest of the international community are all in agreement that the Haitian National Police should remain the focal point of efforts to improve security and the rule of law,” he said.

Obama opened the briefings for reporters at the Pentagon Thursday with a broad commitment to support the military that likewise made no mention of Latin America or the Caribbean.

“We’re turning the page on a decade of war,” he said, noting that while the military was drawing down its forces overseas its budget will still grow.

“I think it’s important for all Americans to remember, over the past 10 years, since 9/11, our defense budget grew at an extraordinary pace,” the president said.

“Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.”

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